Amid all the theories about what caused the disastrous outcome of the US election, one key factor that has been overlooked, and one that helps in particular to explain the wide divergence between opinion polls leading up to the election and the actual ballots cast, and therefore the shock of the result, was voter suppression.
After losing the presidency to Barack Obama for the second time in 2012, Republicans devoted immense energy to creating conditions that would defy demographics and install a Republican in the White House. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, Civil Rights era legislation designed to prevent states from restricting access to the franchise, was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. According to Ta-Nehisi Coates, 19 states actively limited the rights of African-Americans voters.
Voter suppression worked wonders for the Republican Party, which relies overwhelmingly on a shrinking base of white, male voters. Jeffrey Toobin wrote that in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, “which has a large African-American population, sixty thousand fewer votes were cast in 2016 than in 2012.” The difference was, according to Toobin, “nearly double Trump’s margin of victory” in the entire state.
The campaign clearly worked exceptionally well, the only snag being that the candidate was not a regular ideological conservative like Paul Ryan or Ted Cruz but a xenophobic misogynist who chums around with neo-Nazis and foreign dictators (and not the usual, ‘benign’ ones American presidents generally favour).
You will not have to count up very many votes of young, poor, marginalized people. You can pass laws that harm them without fear of losing power. You can even campaign on their inhumanity and win.
Canada had its own voter suppression legislation in place going to into the 2015 election, though the Fair Elections Act (FEA), introduced by the Conservative Party in 2014 to ensure their re-election by disenfranchising people who move a lot and Canadians who live outside the country, was no match for the Conservative Party itself, which was so egregiously unpleasant in power that even a massively skewed electorate voted it decisively out.
In the US, voter suppression is made easier by the very rigid spacialization of racism and poverty. Whites, Latinx, and African-American voters don’t generally live side by side. So the most common way to suppress votes is to limit the number of polls in a given place.
In Canada, this is much more difficult to do. You can, however, do a lot with transience, if you require proof of address that excludes not only the homeless, but also people who move a lot, and people whose names aren’t on bills because they rent or live with family or friends. That way you will not have to count up very many votes of young, poor, marginalized people. You can pass laws that harm them without fear of losing power. You can even campaign on their inhumanity and win.
Now, buried in the flurry of Trump post-mortems and in the furor surrounding Minister Maryam Monsef’s repudiation of the electoral reform committee, an important piece of legislation aims at undoing the crux of the FEA and trying to expand the electorate for a change.
The new legislation, Bill C-33, makes changes in a few areas, most of which are very specifically and pointedly reversals of changes made in the FEA that made it harder for people unlikely to vote Conservative to exercise their franchise.
Under the proposed bill, it will be possible again for someone who is on the voter list to vouch for someone else’s identity and eligibility. The bill also reintroduces voter identity cards, issued by Elections Canada explicitly as legitimate identification for voting (the FEA required forms of identification a lot of people don’t have).
More broadly, it empowers Elections Canada to actively promote voting. One of the more obnoxious provisions of the FEA was the stipulation that the voting agency be strictly passive in accepting the votes of those who voted, rather than campaigning to encourage alienated voters to participate.
Here’s a good general rule: If you’re a party running for election and you are against people participating in the election, you are truly a cretin, everything else being equal. But for a party that also wanted its own scientists to not do science and its parliamentary watchdogs to see no evil, perhaps it made sense to discourage voters from voting.
No one noticed that federal government was introducing legislation to reverse these changes, in large part because the timing was poor. The furor over the electoral reform promise and its reversal has completely engulfed the issue, and altered people’s perceptions of Monsef and the government, perhaps permanently.
To a large degree this is understandable. It was utterly reckless of the Liberals to campaign on something they didn’t plan on doing. They invited a highly engaged and highly influential voting block to support them on conditions that were at the very least irresponsible and most likely dishonest. They have lost a lot of people’s respect, and have fed people’s worst prejudices about politicians—an outcome that was predictable, and that someone must have cynically calculated as the cost of getting elected.
On the other hand, the Minister is right that electoral reform is an interest of a tiny minority of very privileged voters. Most people have trouble following elections as they are, and making them more involved and abstract is risky, as much as it appeals to people who have thought a lot about it. The electoral system should be as simple as it can be. And parties shouldn’t lie. Following those simple rules will make elections easier on everyone.
Bill C-33 is an absolutely necessary reform that has massive implications—more massive, in fact, the further down the ladder of privilege we go.
Voter suppression is different. It is an absolutely necessary reform that has massive implications—more massive, in fact, the further down the ladder of privilege we go. The most marginalized are the most affected, because their right to vote is always least secure, and because the ballot always translates into the right to be seen as human, rather than as simply a problem to be governed.
The government shouldn’t have promised to end first-past-the-post if it didn’t intend to follow through, but the government’s critics should keep their eyes on the prize rather than obsessing over one reform. In the post-Trump context, we must always look out for the most vulnerable. The Minister, to her credit, is doing that, and some of her critics should follow her example.