Why is voter suppression a thing?

Are there actually still undecided voters in the USA? If so, it appears that the Republican Party is no longer trying to convince them of the merits of their presidential candidate; Instead, she does everything possible to ensure that votes do not count for the Democratic opponent Joe Biden. What so brutal voter suppression - Voter suppression - is nothing new in American history. Not only that, it also shows that US democracy does not offer a smooth narrative of increasing inclusion. Rights were fought for, only to be withdrawn again. Relatively new, however, is Trump's strategy of using legalistic tricks and intimidating minorities in front of the polling station to prevent voters from exercising their elementary right to political participation. It hasn't happened for half a century, maybe a century. It shows that Republicans know that with their current staff and program they cannot win majorities the regular way.

The fathers of the American Constitution failed to guarantee anything like a basic right to vote. The definition of the right to vote, as well as the organization of the elections, was left to the individual states - and to this day there are dramatic differences in who is allowed to vote at all. For example, imprisonment can disqualify someone for life in some parts of the country. According to political scientist Adam Przeworski, the US is the only democracy in which the rules for electing a central government vary from state to state - which also multiplies the possibilities for manipulation.

The development of these rules is not a reassuring story for democracy theorists of ever wider circles of civic inclusion - on the contrary: In the beginning, African-Americans were allowed to vote in some states, then no longer; At the beginning of the 19th century (wealthy) women in New Jersey were allowed to cast their votes; then no more.

The civil war not only ended slavery, but also formally political discrimination. The northern states stationed troops in the defeated confederation for years to enforce the right to vote for African Americans. After the controversial presidential election in 1876, however, the Republicans agreed to a dirty deal with the Democrats - then the party of open racism -: a Republican became president, but the troops withdrew.

In order to be able to choose, one had to solve complex arithmetic problems, among other things

However, the right to vote was still on paper. Some recent studies suggest that lynching - at times someone was murdered in this way every four days in the US - also served to secure the Democrats' power in the south. Once they had conquered this, they could enact laws that at first glance appeared quite neutral - but de facto kept those who were already disadvantaged away from the polls. To vote, you had to demonstrate a lot of possessions, solve complex arithmetic problems, or answer remote questions about the constitution of a state - with the decision of whether or not you really passed was at the discretion of a white official. These practices have not been objected to by the courts for a long time, as the laws formally did not discriminate against anyone based on skin color. But also in the north, where people of Irish descent were to be prevented from voting, or in California, where immigrants from China were politically active not welcome tests were used, the design of which guaranteed failure.

The turning point came with the civil rights movement. In the mid-1960s, the Voting Rights Act placed the southern states under a kind of democratic oversight: if they began to work on the electoral screws, they had to get Washington to approve changes in advance: a kind of federalist version of defensive democracy, in which one can For historical reasons, does not trust members of a political entity. A fate that might one day also overtake states like Hungary and Poland in the EU.

And something else has changed: since the 1960s, the Democrats became the party of the minorities, while the Republicans became the self-proclaimed spokesmen for a "silent majority" that was understood as white (and Christian) - with the result that in the past half century no democratic one Presidential candidate has won a majority among whites more.

Now it was the Republicans who had an incentive to prevent minorities from voting. As early as 1980, Paul Weyrich, one of the key figures of the conservative movement, made it quite openly that it would be better for his cause if fewer people voted. Then, under the presidency of George W. Bush, a new era of ingenious electoral obstruction began - probably also because the Texan's strategy of using "compassionate conservatism" to bind minorities and the poor to the Republican Party had crashed.

The right was helped by the now dominated Supreme Court: In 2013, the most important parts of the Voting Rights Act were overturned, allegedly because - according to then and now presiding judge John Roberts - the problem is no longer acute. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the left-liberal conscience of the Supreme Court, interjected indignantly that it was like throwing away an umbrella just because it wasn't raining.

And then the big splash came: literally within hours after the verdict was pronounced, republican-controlled representative bodies began to remove voters from the lists by law, to reduce the number of polling stations and to make postal votes more difficult. The official justification was always that one had to prevent electoral fraud. To date, there is virtually no empirical evidence to support this claim, prompting Republicans to resort to the ingenious argument that some voters are deterred from voting by believing that their vote doesn't count because so much is being cheated - though But it is precisely the fraud narrative that is pushed day and night by right-wing agitators, right up to the president. Whereby the great thing about Trump is that he occasionally blurts out a brutal truth that his party colleagues disguise ideologically: This spring, he complained that measures to make voting easier could never lead to a Republican entering the White House again move in.

In addition to right-wing extremist militias, the "Trump Army" will probably act as an "election observer"

Hundreds of Republicans are already on trial and a Trump army of lawyers is ready to invalidate as many votes as possible. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, in case of doubt in the USA all political questions would end up being legal. But in addition to the bureaucratized electoral obstruction, the Republicans will probably also hope for a brutal street policy on election day. In a gubernatorial election in New Jersey in the early 1980s, the party last used a uniformed National Ballot Security Task Force - mainly off-duty police officers - to intimidate African Americans. Such tactics were banned until 2018; once again a court ruled that such barbaric practices were no longer a problem today. Result: In addition to all kinds of right-wing extremist militias, a "Trump Army" will probably also act as an "election observer".

Trump is the symptom of structural problems, not their cause. For decades, Republicans have relied on what has rightly been called "plutocratic populism". Their economic and tax policy, which primarily benefits the top one percent, is enormously unpopular - which is why one has to divert attention from it with Kulturkampf in defense of white Christian America and thus indirectly symbolically legitimize the electoral exclusion of minorities - because, so the suggestion, it are not "true Americans". But even then it is not enough for empirical majorities: since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Republican presidential candidate has only received the majority of all votes once.

The party has apparently given up the substantive dispute - all that counts is the will to power and, specifically, the permanent occupation of not directly elected institutions - as recently in the rushed appointment of judge Amy Coney Barrett, who declared at her hearing that she could not be so precise say whether voter intimidation is illegal.

On election day it will be seen whether in the self-declared greatest democracy in the world a minority can once again win an election. It is estimated that the Trumpists must manage to invalidate at least 1.7 million votes in the decisive states.

Jan-Werner Müller is currently a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. In spring his new book "Freedom, Equality, Uncertainty: How Do You Create Democracy?".