Elections in the Soviet Union were and are often decried as undemocratic. The way the Soviet election system worked was simple: you were handed a ballot with one candidate, nominated by the local branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. If you wished to vote for that candidate, you simply handed the ballot back to the poll worker. If you wanted to vote for another candidate – which you had a fundamental right to do in the Soviet Union – you took your ballot to the private ballot box. If you were planning to vote for another candidate, it helped to not do so alone: get enough people to vote with you, and you could send a write-in candidate. This happened on multiple occasions, though it was almost always to elect a different communist than the one picked by the party and not, say, a liberal democrat, and after 1987 the party relaxed rules to allow multiple candidates on the ballot (this was short-lived, though, as the Soviet Union collapsed four years later).
For Americans, this felt like a violation of the most fundamental of rights. Americans were used to choices: dozens of laundry detergents in the supermarket, scores of candies at the corner store, and at bare minimum two choices on the ballot. For much of American history, ballots were loaded with candidates representing different views, with groups like the Socialist Party and the Farmer-Labor Party even enjoying representation in the U.S. Congress. Multiparty elections were held up by the United States as proof that it was truly the freest and fairest. If you wanted to be a communist, you could vote for communism (as long as you didn’t, uh, espouse any of the beliefs of communism: overthrowing the government is still illegal).
It would be absurd to claim all Americans could exercise the vote equally. It took a long time before the U.S. Constitution recognized a universal right to vote for adults, and even after that Black Americans were routinely denied the right to vote across the American south until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Suppressing Black voters was a way to protect the institutions built in the south during and after slavery, institutions designed to benefit White southerners.
White southerners abandoned the Democratic Party after the Voting Rights Act, with many joining the Republican Party under President Richard Nixon in 1968. In 2016, it was claimed that the Nixon administration directly targeted Black people by passing laws to criminalize things associated with the Black community; this claim, made by Dan Baum reportedly quoting Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, is dubious, but it’s fair to say that in the years after the Nixon administration, a trend emerged. Politicians could vilify behaviors like drug-dealing, make possession of even a tiny amount of drugs a felony on the grounds that it could be proof of drug-dealing, and pass laws to strip felons of the right to vote.
The U.S. prison population rose rapidly in the 1990s, topping out at over 2 million incarcerated Americans in state and federal custody by 2000; there were more than 6.4 million Americans under correctional supervision that year, including both incarceration and release programs like probation and parole.
Through felony disenfranchisement, politicians can target minority and low-income voters. But it isn’t the only tool to block voting. Voter ID laws are pitched as a way to protect against voter fraud, and it’s hard to argue with voter ID laws – if you live in a place where you have easy access to an agency that issues IDs. In 2015, Alabama shuttered driver license offices in majority Black counties (it reversed the decision after a nationwide outcry). The move was hawked as a way to cut costs but, since Alabama has a strict voter ID law, it meant it would be harder for Black Alabamans to get the necessary documents to cast their ballots.
“I don’t want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”Paul Weyrich, conservative activist, 1980
In 2020, President Trump explained that he had objected to a Democratic-authored coronavirus aid package because it included “things” that would lead to “levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” The admission stunned a political word that thought it couldn’t be stunned by anything Trump said. But he had, as the saying goes, said the quiet part out loud. Sure, conservatives had freely acknowledged that voter suppression was essential for the party to gain and maintain control, but conservative politicians were expected to keep up the guise that the whole thing was about the integrity of the ballot.
Trump did it again months later, telling reporters that if you “get rid of the ballots… there won’t be a transfer, frankly; there’ll be a continuation,” suggesting that the big problem his campaign was facing was that there were all these pesky voters to deal with.
For the most part, Trump has been pushing the same voter fraud angle that Republicans have peddled for decades. The White House has warned that undocumented immigrants will vote, that foreign powers could print their own ballots and mail them in, and that mail-in ballots are more susceptible to fraud than in-person voting – all of which are untrue. He’s promised to accept the results of a free and fair election but also said that an election can’t be free and fair if it’s done by mail-in voting.
To address the certain uncertainty the Trump administration is brewing for November, the campaign is working on its perfect solution: an election without voters. Instead of voters – who are unlikely to give Trump a popular vote victory even if, like in 2016, he squeaks by with an electoral college victory – the campaign will rely on Trump loyalist selected for the electoral college by state legislatures.
This is all in-line with Constitution, which actually gives the power to appoint electors to the legislatures; its only by convention that the legislatures delegate that power to the people, who elect them in the popular vote stage of the election. Instead, though, Republican-controlled legislatures – of which there are by far enough to secure the electoral college – could simply bypass the popular vote and select the electors themselves. This would not sit well with Americans if they did it before election day, but Republicans could spin delays in counting the vote – the almost assured result of a high volume of mail-in voting – as proof of tampering or widespread election fraud. Then, they could go to state legislatures and ask them, solemnly, to use the fallback option: pick your own electors.
That would require a national Republican effort to be as unscrupulous as the White House is and, while some critics might say that already exists, its far from the most certain scenario. Indeed, University of California – Irvine law professor Rick Hasen says that states might be reluctant to suggest that they don’t know how to hold their own elections.
But the possibility that it could happen at all shows how dangerous it is that the United States has no Constitutional guarantee of a right to vote. As lawmakers and candidates continue to insist that voter fraud is rampant and a threat to democracy, they do so to blind the public to the real threat to democracy: disenfranchisement, something this country has gotten far too good at in the past few decades.