The 2016 election scandal we're not talking about
Voters are amped up about the 2016 race and eager to vote, so why have the Supreme Court and so many states made voting harder. The 5-hour waits that some voters endured in Arizona recently made America look like a banana republic.
So Donald Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was busted today on misdemeanor battery charges for his alleged physically abusive handling of a female journalist who was merely trying to ask a question of the GOP presidential frontrunner. The allegations feel like every just-under-the-surface sleazy subtext of the Trump campaign -- its embrace of violence, the campaign's overt misogyny, and its even-more-overt hostility toward reporters -- wrapped up in one untidy package. I'm not going to write a whole post about the episode because these days I'm wondering what's really left to say about All the Short-Fingered Vulgarian's Men.
It's been that way for a while now -- the whose-wife-is-hotter wars between Trump and Ted Cruz, the quest for who planted a sleazy (I know, I've used that word twice...it's unavoidable) story about Cruz in the National Enquirer, etc., etc., etc. No wonder that -- despite the scores of times that Trump has appeared or called into major news shows -- it took some nine months, with Trump close to claiming enough delegates for the nomination, for someone to finally press The Donald on his inane "foreign policy." The cable TV rent is too damn high, apparently, for discussion of actual issues like, say, opioid abuse.
But then there's the big scandal that no one is talking about. The voting scandal.
Excuse me...to be more clear I should call it the lack-of-voting scandal.
It's easy to miss the concept that voting, in and of itself, can be a major political issue. I know I did. Today I vaguely remember the debates in the early 1990s over so-called "motor voter laws" -- making it easy for folks to register to vote when they inevitably deal with the DMV -- and thinking...that's a nice idea. Like a lot of citizens, I generally thought -- to the extent I thought about it at all -- that voting should be easier, I didn't imagine that elected politicians would actively work to make voting harder (but then, I also didn't imagine "President Trump" and all the crazy stuff in the first two paragraphs of this post, so...). Democracy is threatened on multiple fronts in 2016 -- but no greater threat exists than this insidious threat from within.
I say this in a week when I personally witnessed some rare good news on the voting-rights front. Here in Pennsylvania, hundreds of thousands voters either changed their party affiliation or registered for the first time in order to vote in the state's April 26 primary. That's a healthy sign -- it means that voters are energized (or maybe unusually threatened) by the choices left in the 2016 race, including the unconventional, boat-rocking candidacies of Trump and "democratic socialist" Bernie Sanders. But what's neat is that many of the party switches and new voters -- especially for the under-30 crowd -- happened because the Wolf administration finally cleared the way in 2015 for online voter registration.
What a great idea! So great, as my colleague John Baer pointed out in Tuesday's Daily News, that Pennsylvania lawmakers enabled it in 2002, less than two years removed from the "butterfly ballot" and other horrors of the Bush-Gore election and the Florida recount. It only took 13 years -- a time when, as Baer notes, Pennsylvania managed to also ignore early voting, same-day registration, and other ideas that have increased participation in the democratic process in other states. Somehow, when all the apparatus of state government was placed in Republican hands in the 2010 election, the Keystone State did jump on the reverse bandwagon of a voter ID law, which would have blocked large numbers of voters -- especially the young or the poor -- from the ballot box had it not been neutered by the courts.
If online registration is the "good" and voter ID laws are the "bad," where can we expect to find the "ugly." Well, Arizona would be a pretty good guess. Viewers who turned in early to catch the results from last week's Arizona primary were stunned to see endless lines of voters snaking through the late afternoon desert warmth. Some said they waited all night to cast their ballots.
One voter named Araceley Calderon told the Nation magazine she showed up at her precinct in Maricopa County, the urban center that includes Phoenix, to vote right before the polls were supposed to close at 7 p.m. local time. The woman, a naturalized citizen born in Guatemala, instead found a line of 700 people, stretching for four blocks. Calderon cast the last ballot of the night at 12:12 a.m. -- more than five hours later. "I'm here to exercise my right to vote," she told the magazine -- but countless numbers of voters didn't have Calderon's stamina and simply gave up and went home.
Scenes like this were repeated all over Maricopa County, which holds a big chunk of Arizona's population and is 40 percent non-white. How did it happen? The surge of voter interest -- what we've seen in Pennsylvania with the party switches and new voters -- probably played a role, but not as much as a decision by Maricopa County officials to reduce the number of polling stations by a whopping 70 percent. Before the 2013 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that gutted a key section of the 1965 Selma-inspired Voting Rights Act, county officials would have needed approval for that from the feds, which probably would have looked at a move that discouraged so many voters in Maricopa County with a jaundiced eye.
This is a fundamental failure of the American ideal -- and, as usual, failure has many fathers. The main culprit is the conservative movement in this country -- including the right-leaning majority that guided the High Court to its disastrous ruling three years ago and the various GOP legislatures and governors in the "blue states" who've been happy to take advantage of this new climate to enact all kinds of restrictive measures, from onerous voter-ID laws to closing polling places and curtailing early voting, almost always targeting demographic groups or localities (college campuses, low-income neighborhoods) that tend to vote Democratic. But Democrats also need to do more, to shout from the mountaintops about these abuses and to take steps where they can -- as Gov. Wolf did with online registration -- to make voting easier.
There are so many good things that have been done here and there ("there" often being other nations) that could easily be done everywhere in the U.S. of A.: Holding all elections on Saturdays (or, conversely, making Election Day a holiday), expanded early voting, same-day registration, and even mail-in voting, which three U.S. states have done successfully for years.
It's a war that once seemed to be over -- in a nation that has enshrined Dr. Martin Luther King as a national hero and turned "Selma" into an Oscar-nominated movie. Instead, we seem to be in full-fledged retreat -- passing the kind of archaic restrictions on our fundamental voting rights that ought to be enforced by the likes of Bull Connor or Sheriff Jim Clark. The scenes that occurred in Arizona last week were both appalling and unacceptable. I imagine it would have been easier for Araceley Calderon to vote in her native Guatemala than it was in Maricopa County, Arizona. last Tuesday. That is the real scandal of the 2016 election, one that cuts even deeper than the nightly Trump-Cruz telenovela.
But as long as one party doesn't see a problem with disenfranchising huge numbers of our citizens to try and gain a cheap electoral advantage, it will never get fixed.