Tampering, voter suppression threaten elections

This year’s elections will be confusing and possibly corrupt.

Voting used to be a routine process in which people had confidence. But the ways it is being undermined have only recently begun to be understood, raising real questions about just how “free and fair” elections really are.

Begin with the obvious Russian efforts to undermine voting. They are meant to destroy Americans’ confidence in our own political system far more than to dictate election winners.

The Russians admit nothing, but continue trying to tamper with vulnerable election systems in the U.S. and many European countries. They see election tampering as a war they can win.

They can mess with state voter lists. That means that everything in the election process should be backed up on paper and hand checked well before Election Day. Use electronics, but back up in hard copy. Creating smaller precincts, as in Canada, would help ensure local officials knew their voters.

While the Russians try to harm electoral operations, the Republican Party simply wants to keep people from voting – voter suppression. Using false assertions of voter fraud, states under its control impose voting access rules aimed at blocking likely Democratic supporters.

Its tactics range from higher voter ID requirements, which impose complexity and cost on lower income voters, to cutting hours and days for voting. The GOP faces increasing opposition to its moves, but opponents need to help people comply with the tougher laws.

Another openly announced GOP policy is gerrymandering, designed to reduce the number of Democrats elected to state legislatures and Congress. Under this system, bizarre district lines are drawn to cram as many Democrats as possible into one district, allowing the GOP to pick up more seats.

This year, that system will end in Pennsylvania, where the congressional delegation has been 13 Republicans and 5 Democrats. The parties are evenly divided in votes cast statewide, so the likely outcome is nine members each. The GOP sponsors most gerrymandering, but in a few places the Dems do the same.

If efforts to reduce voter suppression and gerrymandering succeed, either the House or Senate or both could flip from GOP control to the Democrats. In today’s negative political atmosphere, many incumbent Republicans have chosen not to seek reelection. Their seats have become more competitive.

The president’s party usually loses seats at mid-term elections. To an unusual degree, the president himself has become what may be the major issue of the election, particularly if discussion of impeachment surfaces.

Given their strong congressional majority, until quite recently the possibility of the GOP losing control of Congress would have seemed impossible. But this array of troublesome developments suggests that control of Congress is a toss-up.

More usually, voters will see presidential hopefuls in both the Democratic and Republican parties helping legislative candidates across the country as a way of building their political organizations for the 2020 primaries. This process should reveal who expects to challenge Trump.

Without election corruption, Maine has managed to add its own level of election confusion. It’s about ranked choice voting.

In a referendum, voters decided to end elections going to the candidate getting the most votes, if less than an absolute majority. RCV allows voters to pick more than one choice, in rank order, with their votes being electronically redistributed until a candidate has a majority.

The Maine Supreme Court found parts of RCV unconstitutional, leading the Legislature to delay its use until the State Constitution was amended. RCV supporters want voters to overturn part of that new law.

In June, the confusion may end up placing Maine voters in an unusual position. They may be asked to cast primary votes using RCV, for the first time ever at any state level, but also if they support the Legislature’s delay. In theory, they could agree to suspend using RCV now, but also cast their primary votes under that system.

Decisions on RCV issues will continue to rest with the Maine Supreme Court. It may take a few years for this confused system to sort itself out, and there could be still other legal challenges. For example, does RCV violate the rule of one person, one vote?

As in any discussion of elections, people are urged to vote. Fair enough, but the system will continue to become more vulnerable unless voters go beyond campaign TV spots to understand the system, candidates and issues.

Those who tamper with the election system try to exploit voters’ ignorance and apathy. To protect free elections, people need to be well-informed not merely well-intentioned.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.