More than a third of U.S voters may have cast their ballots before Election Day under early-voting procedures, a heartening development in the face of aggressive Republican vote-suppression efforts in a number of states with GOP-controlled legislatures. While black turnout slipped by nearly 9 percent during the 17-day early-voting window in the critical swing state of North Carolina — a drop probably caused partly by Republican attempts to dampen turnout in areas with large black populations — an apparent surge in early voting elsewhere by Hispanics and other groups contributed to what is likely to be a record number of early voters: well over 40 million.
Notwithstanding the overall success of early voting, the peril of obstruction, intimidation and even violence at the polls remains, thanks mainly to Donald Trump’s explicit rhetoric and barely veiled messaging to his supporters. In repeatedly urging his partisans to intervene at polling places to thwart a “rigged” outcome, the Republican presidential nominee has invited confrontation and the possibility of chaos. By instructing nearly all-white crowds to scrutinize voting in “certain areas,” he has encouraged racial rancor.
Election monitors, including from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, are key to ensuring that voting proceeds smoothly and that those who seek to impede it are held to account after the elections. If vigilantes from either party obstruct or discourage U.S. citizens from exercising their most basic democratic right, they should face legal consequences, on top of the punishment that will surely be meted out by voters with long memories for years to come.
What these voters may remember is that Republican legislatures in some states adopted a strategy intended to win by suppressing votes rather than attracting them, often targeting minorities, youths and other Democratic-leaning blocs. Measures have included new voting ID laws, shuttering some polling places and reducing hours for early voting. Other GOP shenanigans to reduce voting have been underway in the final days of the campaign. Twitter removed bogus ads using Clinton campaign imagery that urged her supporters to cast their vote by text.
The rise of voter ID laws and other laws intended to impede minority voting was enabled by the Supreme Court, which three years ago gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court’s ruling stripped the Justice Department of its power to screen voting laws in nine states, mostly in the South, with a history of racial discrimination. The result was a field day for GOP lawmakers, in North Carolina and elsewhere, bent on throwing up barriers to black turnout. While federal courts have disallowed some of the resulting laws, they have permitted others to stand.
It is critical to U.S. democracy, and to the health of the two-party system, that one party’s efforts to gain electoral advantage by erecting obstacles to voting do not succeed. The alternative — two big-tent parties competing to expand their appeal to new constituencies — is the only way to restore some semblance of comity to a nation deeply riven by factionalism.