Column, 667 words

Blocking the Vote

Lackluster Democratic campaigns, coupled with vote-suppressing maneuvers, gave the GOP its edge.

William A. Collins

When she heard that the GOP had nailed a Senate majority, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska grabbed a chair, lifted it over her head and shouted “I’m the chair, maaaaaaan!”

The presumptive next chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s victory dance symbolized the scale of the GOP’s 2014 midterm elections win.

Depending on who Alaska‘s other senator will be and the outcome of Louisiana’s runoff election, the GOP could gain as many as nine new Senate seats, giving it majority control over that chamber. Democrats also surrendered at least a dozen House seats and lost more governorships than they picked up.

Republican Voter Suppression Tactics

DonkeyHotey/Flickr

President Barack Obama’s low approval ratings sure didn’t help. But it took a toxic brew of crummy Democratic Party campaigns, voter suppression, and unfettered corporate campaign cash to deliver this drubbing.

In other words, as Democrats failed to rock the vote, Republicans succeeded at blocking it.

Candidates like Martha Coakley, a Democrat who won’t serve as the next governor of Massachusetts, refused to channel the dynamism of the climate movement that converged in New York City in September. And they didn’t tap into the mobilization for gun sense in the wake of the mass shooting that killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut and similar tragedies. That meant fewer progressive voters felt moved to show up at the polls.

“Where the hell is the Democratic Party?” former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean growled on NBC’s Meet the Press. “You’ve got to stand for something if you want to win.”

Instead of inspiring their party’s base, an alarming number of Democratic nominees took it for granted. That helps explain why many voters supported progressive ballot initiatives on everything from minimum wage increases to campaign finance limits in what otherwise looked like a Republican wave election.

But the outcome wouldn’t have been the same — and turnout might not have sunk to its lowest point since World War II — without massive new restrictions on voter registration.

“In several key races, the margin of victory came very close to the likely margin of disenfranchisement,” observes Wendy R. Weiser, Director the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.

For years, the Republican playbook has included strewing roadblocks on the pathway to the polls. Since citizens who face economic hardship, belong to communities of color, or happen to be young tend to support Democrats, suppressing their votes has become a booming new conservative industry.

Assorted vote-suppressing tactics may have distorted the outcome of North Carolina’s close Senate race and the surprisingly close governor’s race in Kansas. They also magnified Greg Abbott’s edge over Democrat Wendy Davis in the Texas gubernatorial contest.

In Florida, Republican Governor Rick Scott — who narrowly won reelection despite an idiotic ad that compared him to an affordable wedding dress — is embroiled in a major gerrymandering case.

You see, the state’s legislature voted to cram as many black and Latino voters as possible into a few convoluted-looking congressional districts. This arrangement was designed to keep these Democratic-leaning communities from turning any of the remaining white-majority districts that keep the GOP in power blue.

When a federal judge overturned that map, Florida lawmakers returned with a similar one. Maybe things will get sorted out there by 2016.

Yet ultimately money, not Republicans, won the midterms: 94 percent of the candidates who won House races — and 82 percent of Senate winners — outspent the competition. That’s no surprise after Citizens United and related Supreme Court rulings granted corporations and wealthy individuals the ability to ladle record quantities of cash, often anonymously, into campaign coffers.

Clearly, Democrats are in trouble. Can they raise enough money by sweet-talking the rich to outspend Republicans and still manage to connect with the working-class Americans whose votes they need to win?

The answer is probably no. The Democrats who stop worrying about offending rich donors and stand up for the progressive issues Americans backed in ballot initiatives on Election Day will be better at rocking the vote.

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Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy StudiesOtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. OtherWords.org