American News

The Science of Voter Suppression

Election rigging happens to be a hallowed tradition in the United States, so what’s all the fuss about?
Peter Isackson, voter suppression, vote rigging, Cambridge Analytica data leak, Trump campaign Cambridge Analytica, Trump campaign voter suppression, Trump campaign voter targeting, Facebook political ads, Facebook Trump campaign ads, black voters news

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September 30, 2020 10:38 EDT

Great traditions persist for centuries even as they change their style. New York’s Tammany Hall and its colorful leader “Boss Tweed” in the late 19th century perfected the art of “manufacturing votes” to elect the people they preferred and run the show in their manner. It set the standard followed by many other local political bosses across the nation.

In his film “Kansas City,” Robert Altman presented a special world of corrupt 1930s politicians, black and white gangsters and late-night jam sessions in KC clubs. The film demonstrates the well-documented fact that “the Kansas City area has a rich legacy of election fraud, stretching from before the Civil War to after World War II.” More recently, former Kansas secretary of state and failed gubernatorial candidate, Kris Kobach, perfected a system he shared with Republican governors that arbitrarily suppressed voters in different states based on the principle that any two people who happened to have the same name must be fraudulently voting in two different states.

Ever since Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, Democrats have focused on Russian interference to explain Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Greg Palast, who exposed Kris Kobach and Georgia’s Brian Kemp, among others, has found evidence that points to Trump’s 2016 victory being a result of voter suppression. According to Palast, if all the ballots had been counted, Hillary Clinton most likely would have won the state of Michigan. Some 75,355 ballots, mostly from majority-black precincts, were discarded. For some mysterious reason, Democrats have never raised that issue, presumably because there was no way of placing the blame on Russia.

With a new election approaching, some Democrats may have realized that their party establishment having over-exploited the theme of Russian meddling has to look for a culprit elsewhere. Motivated by the fear of another close election that might favor Trump in the Electoral College, they have found another theme related to meddling to explain their Clinton’s defeat in 2016.

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Jamie Ross, a journalist at The Daily Beast, cites an “enormous data leak” obtained by the UK’s Channel 4 News that exposes an operation mounted by the 2016 Trump campaign that consisted of using Facebook ads to persuade black voters to stay home rather than vote for Hillary Clinton. The article’s subtitle sums up the scandal: “A huge data leak shows that three million Black Americans were unknowingly added to a list of people that Team Trump wanted to keep away from polling places.” Jamal Watkins, vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is cited as saying that “It’s not ‘may the best candidate win’ at that point, it’s ‘may the best well-funded machine suppress voters and keep them at home thereby rigging the election so that someone can win.’”

Like the kerfuffle surrounding the Russians, the vehicle for meddling was Facebook. Because Facebook was willing to release private data to Cambridge Analytica — a British political consulting firm at the heart of this still-ongoing data breach scandal — who then made that data available to its clients, the Trump campaign could target black voters with ads or articles critical of Hillary Clinton. Though there is no direct evidence of this practice and even less of its effect, Ross asserts that “it’s likely that it was used to help the campaign micro-target people on Facebook in the months leading up to Election Day in 2016.”

Anything that is “likely” must qualify not just as “rigging” but as a form of voter suppression. Ross reminds readers that Facebook has recently “cited its new rules prohibiting voter suppression,” presumably justifying his characterization of an act designed to demotivate voters as voter suppression.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Voter suppression:

A traditional practice that has been refined into an obligatory scientific tool of the two major political parties in the United States, though used more extensively and with far more skill by Republicans than Democrats.  

Contextual Note

The Daily Devil’s Dictionary sees three problems with calling this operation “voter suppression.” The first is that the supposed crime has only been qualified as “likely.” This is unconfirmed news. It may deserve a mention in passing, but not as the basis of a news story.

The second is that whatever it is and whatever its ultimate effects, it cannot be called voter suppression. Discouraging people from voting by exposing them to a negative message about a candidate is standard practice in political campaigning. It may be disingenuous and, when channeled through Facebook, passably devious, but it is little more than an original form of political advertising.

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Finally, it implies that virtuous Democrats would never attempt to “micro-target people on Facebook.” Given the professionalism of modern political campaigns conducted by both major parties, that seems very “unlikely.” No one would doubt that the Republicans are always ready to go the extra mile — as they did by engaging Cambridge Analytica and profiting from Facebook’s complicity — but Democrats have always tried their best to hone their own skills. They may simply be more discreet in doing so.

Evidence of Democrats practicing voter suppression can be found throughout the recent history of political campaigns. The hallowed practice of gerrymandering by both parties has more similarities with voter suppression than negative ads on Facebook. Former Democratic Party Chairwoman Donna Brazile admitted that the party deployed various means to rig the 2016 primaries in favor of Hillary Clinton. There have been documented cases of voter suppression by the Democratic Party establishment, though it was directed not at Republicans but at the Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders.

Can it be that the Republicans are specialized in voter suppression for general elections and Democrats for primaries? In any case, recent events — from the hanging chads and butterfly ballots in Florida in the 2000 election to Donald Trump’s outcry against mail-in ballot fraud as a pretext for canceling the result of this year’s election — have shown that American democracy, to the extent that democracy is defined by the act of voting, is seriously broken. The damage goes well beyond simple cases of Facebook advertising.

In March, The Atlantic published an article by Ibram X. Kendi describing how the political establishment has systematically discouraged young voters from voting. Kendi writes: “Both Republicans and moderate Democrats share a joint interest in not increasing the voting rates of young people. Republicans lose general elections to Democrats when young people vote in high numbers. Moderate Democrats lose primary elections to progressive Democrats when young people vote in high numbers.”

A sclerotic system designed principally to protect those who settled into a position of power within government and their parties has effectively disenfranchised entire generations, often sanctimoniously referred to as “the future of the nation” but clearly felt by those in power to be a threat to the sovereignty of the elite they identify with.

Historical Note

The Republicans have an advantage over the Democrats when it comes to voter suppression to the extent that large swaths of Democratic voters are easier to identify and target. Most minorities, especially blacks and Latino voters, have over the years consistently supported Democratic candidates in preference to Republicans. Since at least the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democrats have directed their appeal to the working class in contrast with the Republicans, whose ideology aligned with business interests.

The effective rule of the WASP elite (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) permitted the creation of a class system in which racial and ethnic minorities were left to fester in the bottom rungs of society. The lowly economic and social status of blacks and Mexicans led them to line up behind a Democratic Party that seemed more sensitive to their needs. This turned out to be very convenient for the Republican specialists in voter suppression. Thanks to the statistical distribution of family names, especially for the Hispanics, and even first names, since African Americans have always been more creative and less conformist in naming their children, targeting “duplicate” voters could be done with a simple computer program.

Some youngsters who study “political science” in college — with its focus on political systems, laws, ideology and economic theory — and manage to drift into politics, end up discovering that their job will really be about “electoral science” rather than political science. They will learn that politics has nothing to do with the art of governing but focuses on the science of winning. In other words, it is mostly about intellectual suppression.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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