How Voter Suppression Helped Produce the Lowest Turnout in Decades
November 09, 2014, 1:00am

By Juan Thompson, The Intercept

On Tuesday, older, white voters — who traditionally support Republicans — went to the polls in droves, while turnout among traditionally Democratic groups — the young, the minoritized, and women — was down. Indeed, overall turnout declined to an estimated 36.6% of eligible voters, the lowest rate of participation since the 1940s, despite the $3 billion spent by candidates, political parties, and super PACs.

Yes, President Barack Obama’s poor performance and approval rating undoubtedly played a role in the lower turnout. But the evidence is piling up that systematic voter suppression, including voter ID laws and dubious vote-fraud prevention software, played a significant part in keeping people from casting ballots, as well.

Take the situation in Texas, where Democrat Wendy Davis lost badly to Republican Greg Abbott in the gubernatorial race. More important than her expected defeat is that the Lone Star State had the lowest voter turnout in the country at 33%, down from 38% four years earlier. It’s difficult to determine to what precise extent Texas’s new voter ID law is to blame for the poor turnout, but “there are somewhere between 600,000 and 1.4 million registered voters in Texas without state ID,” according to Kathleen Unger, whose nonprofit, VoteRiders, works to get people the documents they need to vote. Working through local organizations, two-year-old VoteRiders went into Houston’s Harris County this year in response to what Unger called its “very restrictive” voter ID law.

Despite such efforts, some Texans were still unable to vote. Think Progress’ Alice Ollstein recently documented how some Texas voters were dropped from the rolls or denied ballots because they couldn’t afford new IDs. Ollstein couldn’t quantify such incidents, but a recent Government Accountability Office report on voter ID laws in Tennessee and Kansas found they decreased turnout in those two states in 2012. In Texas, there are indications the same thing happened this year, including the fact that provisional ballots increased by half on Tuesday to 16,463, an uptick from the 8,000 issued in 2010. Provisional ballots are given to voters who have difficulty proving their eligibility, and because some thwarted voters don’t even bother to cast them, they are a proxy for larger problems.

In Georgia, meanwhile, nearly 40,000 new voters mysteriously vanished from the rolls, possibly due to scrubbing by a controversial software system known as Crosscheck. Turnout was only 34%, which is down six percentage points from 2010.

Over the past two years Raphael Warnock, leader of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, worked with the New Georgia Project to register some 80,000 new and mostly black voters. New Georgia Project’s efforts was the state’s largest voter registration drive in 50 years, according to reports. “It’s a fundamental, basic American right to vote”, Warnock told me. Such thinking explains why he was so angry when half of those new voters failed to appear on the rolls this fall. “The Georgia Secretary of State’s office had no explanation at all as to where those voters went”, Warnock explained. A person in the Georgia Secretary of State’s office declined comment (after alerting me to the fact that “the election’s over”). But earlier this year, that same office accused the New Georgia Project of voter registration fraud. In the end only 50 questionable forms were found.

Georgia, it must also be noted, is one of 27 states using the controversial software Crosscheck to weed out supposed voter fraud. Al Jazeera, which recently finished a months-long investigation of the program, found an astonishing 7 million Americans suspected of voter fraud on the Crosscheck lists. That despite the fact that voter fraud is almost unbelievably rare. One dogged investigator, a professor focused on election administration at Loyola University Law School, found just 31 credible incidents between 2000 and mid 2014, nationwide.

Crosscheck scours the names of voters who live in the 27 states, and if a first and last name matches in two states both persons are flagged and purged. The surnames most likely to be flagged? “The lists are heavily weighted with names such as Jackson, Garcia, Patel and Kim — ones common among minorities”, Al Jazeera reported. “List matching is an inaccurate science that burdens, disproportionately, minority voters”, said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Weiser also claimed that voter complaints to her group’s hotline were higher this year than ever before.

While a partisan may be quick to frame this issue as Democrat versus Republican, it is about so much more. Warnock wasn’t wrong when he called the right to vote a basic right. But legislators in Texas and Georgia and elsewhere, who have targeted the most vulnerable in our society, disagree. These legislators aren’t inflicting physical pain upon potential non-white voters, à la Bull Connor, but are undoubtedly wreaking havoc upon the civic lives of millions. And this American attack on the human rights of other Americans will only get worse.