Democracy On the Ballot

I hate it when people say that “democracy is on the ballot,” but what if it is? What if it was last night? What if it won a mixed result? Last night felt good, but there were two races that meant more to me than the others. My old district in Bay Ridge flipped when Republican Dan Donovan was defeated badly by Democrat Max Rose. But that race wasn’t one of them. My old district in Virginia has been Republican since 1971 and flipped in favor of Democrat and former intelligence officer, Abigail Spanberger. That wasn’t one either (though it’s a close third).

The first was Kris Kobach’s gubernatorial race in Kansas. Kris Kobach was Kansas Secretary of State, responsible for administering statewide elections in Kansas. He made a career out of investigating sensationalized claims of voter fraud (for which he never found evidence), using them as a pretext for brutal voter suppression measures, and using the power of his office to prosecute individuals for mistakes and inconsistencies as a means of intimidating others out of registering at all. In his eight years as Secretary of State, he managed only nine convictions: one for voting by a noncitizen and eight for “double voting by older Republican men.” In 2017, Donald Trump made Kobach the head of a commission he set up to investigate the (bullshit) allegation that three million illegal immigrants had voted in the presidential election and swung the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Before winning the election, Trump had refused to say whether he would concede if he lost, citing the countless illegal immigrants and the deep-state conspiracy to bring them to the polls.

When Kobach’s voter ID law was challenged by the ACLU, his expert witness testified that he flagged tens of thousands of voters as potential noncitizens based on their “foreign-sounding names.” During the trial, he was fined $1,000 for making “patently misleading” statements, held in contempt of court once, and threatened with contempt several other times. The ruling struck down Kobach’s signature Voter-ID law and mandated continuing legal education to remedy the misunderstanding of law he wielded as a weapon. Kobach lost last night to Democrat Laura Kelly by 4.5 percentage points.

The other race was Stacey Abrams’s for Georgia governor. Abrams was vying to become the first black woman to be elected to a governorship in any state. She is a Yale-educated lawyer, previous minority leader of the Georgia statehouse, and an advocate for voting rights who registered tens of thousands of previously disenfranchised Georgians. She was close but behind in polls for much of her campaign against Georgia Secretary of State, Brian Kemp. Kemp became Secretary of State in 2010 when the Secretary at the time stepped down to run in that year’s gubernatorial election. He never stepped down from his position administering Georgia’s statewide elections. Instead, he launched an investigation into new voter registrations that he admitted was intended to dampen Black and Latino turnout, publicly accused his opponent of voter fraud, purged 10.6% of voters from the rolls, blocked 35,000 others from registering, and attempted (by way of a donor) to close seven of nine precincts in a handful of majority black counties. Abrams lost to Kemp by 75,000 votes: Kemp canceled 85,000 registrations in the first seven months of this year alone.

Kobach and Kemp symbolize a white, Southern politics that we always imagine died in 1964. In reality, however, that ruthless politics of disenfranchisement just became more diffuse. It’s still White, but it’s not just Southern anymore. It wears high-dollar suits, brands itself as a “politician-and-businessman,” gels its hair into a point, lives in western New York or the upper-Midwest or the Great Plains or Orange County. Kemp looks like the old model: brown hair combed-over and stuffy suit, perched atop an election commission in the Old Confederacy. Kobach looks like the new. Both are little more than a throwback to Jim Crow.

Exit polls are still coming in, but one conclusion is clear: White men are the only demographic group that broke decidedly for Republicans. White women are evenly split and they’re the only other that’s close. When other people vote, Republicans lose. When more people vote, when more people are enfranchised, when more people have time to make it to the polls, when more people are able to vote absentee, Republicans lose. But rather than try to appeal to a broader base, Republicans have decided to block people from voting. There is literally nothing more disgraceful and undemocratic than that bargain. There’s also nothing new here, including our unwillingness to treat it like a real factor with real political consequences.

We know how to talk about geographical sorting, the difficulty of particular races in this year’s Senate contest, and how those structural factors entrench Republican power. That’s the way the country is built: rural, largely white communities have more power than their share of the population merits. It’s always been that way. But we don’t know how to deal with a resentful politics that uses fear to justify its narrow appeal and rob tens of thousands of people of their right to vote. We’re unable to treat it as a normal part of our politics that we have to account for along with the map, voter enthusiasm, and the weather on the first Tuesday in November.

Brian Kemp stole an election yesterday. No. We handed Brian Kemp an election yesterday, an election that he didn’t earn. When Democrats talk about the fate of the country hanging in the balance, this is what they’re talking about. They’re not talking about the typical life-or-death politics of an Obama-McCain election. They’re talking about an entire political party that has decided its best path to power is to strip democracy of its legitimacy. For what it’s worth, Kansas is a deep red state and tossed Kris Kobach out with Tuesday’s garbage. But Kansas is also overwhelmingly white and their Democrat was elected by voters almost as white as those who elected their last Republican. Georgia has a growing population of young, Latino, and Black voters and, in that state, Republicans pulled out all the stops and we let them.

In two years, the fate of democracy will be on the ballot, but not at the top of the ticket. It’ll be in every single race with a Republican running. This shit can not work. As long as it does, they’ll continue to use it.