Voter suppression is at the forefront of the US national debate. Are these tactics now making their way to Europe?
“I consider everything under 10% for AfD to be voter fraud”- AfD supporter on social media
“I would have won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people that voted illegally” – US President Donald Trump
With an upcoming Supreme Court decision on partisan gerrymandering, new voter ID laws around the country, and increased rhetoric about voter fraud, the topic of voter suppression is at the forefront of the US national debate. For nearly 150 years, white legislators seeking to preserve their privilege and power have used these tactics to keep low-income and minority citizens from exercising their right to vote.
But while the United States is a pioneer in the field, it is not alone in struggling with the issues of voter suppression. Far-right, nationalist movements are spurring a rise in voter suppression tactics and fear-mongering about voter fraud in Europe, as well.
Voter ID laws are a favorite tactic by right-wing actors in the US, where the lack of a national ID means that it is disproportionately low-income and minority voters who do not have other forms of identification, like a driver’s license or passport. In the United Kingdom, the Conservatives have been pushing for similar voter ID laws, even though only 0.00025 percent of votes cast in 2015 are alleged voter fraud cases Northern Ireland is currently the only province in the UK in which voters have to show photo IDs. But in the 2018 elections, the Conservative Constitution Minister Chris Skidmore is implementing a pilot scheme in which five areas in England will serve as a trial for the rest of the country by requiring some form of identification to vote. Unlike in Northern Ireland, where the government provided free photo IDs when the new rules took effect, there are no plans to introduce a free card in the rest of the UK. According to the Electoral Commission, an estimated 3.5 million people do not have a photo ID and could lose their access to the voting process.
The UK is also experimenting with American-style partisan gerrymandering. A new proposal of electoral maps first introduced under former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron designs the number of seats for an area not by how many people live there but by how many people were on the electoral register in December 2015. This would mean that the 2.5 million people that registered for the EU referendum would not be counted in the formation of new electoral districts. As it stands after the June 2016 election, the leftist Labour Party already needs more votes (40,290) to win one seat in UK Parliament than the Conservatives (a mere 34,244). The proposed changes would exacerbate this disparity. In addition, a new registration system that transitioned the voter registration process from a household registration to individual electoral registration purged around 800,000 people, mostly students, off its list when it was newly implemented amidst fear of voter fraud.
In Germany, where national elections were held on September 24, voter suppression tactics are not yet widespread. However, for the first time in Germany’s history, the election saw heated rhetoric around voter fraud that resembled the US debate: The hashtag #Wahlbetrug (#voterfraud) trended on Twitter the day before the general elections, thanks to supporters of the right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD)and Russian Twitter bots. The AfD also called on its supporters to watch the vote count, suggesting that election workers might discount or invalidate some of their votes. The claim led the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to send election observers to watch the vote count, a huge win for the AfD. Unlike Trump and Republicans in the US, the AfD, which holds only 12.6 percent of seats in parliament, is in no position to change voting laws or call a presidential commission. But its fear-mongering rhetoric has had a similar effect in sowing distrust and undermining the legitimacy of the democratic system.
In France, supporters of right-wing populist presidential candidate Marine Le Pen also made claims of voter fraud. They circulated accusations that Le Pen’s opponents purposefully and systematically tore up ballots for the Front National candidate, and claimed that French citizens living abroad had voted twice. The claims were tinged with clear tones of anti-Semitism: “The Jewish community… arranged to have Le Pen’s ballots destroyed,” a right-wing online blog wrote following the election.
The voter suppression tactics that are beginning to appear in the UK, Germany, and France do not compare to the well-developed systems of disenfranchisement in the US. There, decades of voter suppression tactics have culminated in the new Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity set up by the President. Trump has repeatedly said that his loss in the general election was due to 3 to 5 million people voting illegally, a statement that has no foundation in fact. The computer program that the Commission wants to implement nation-wide, the Interstate Crosscheck System, is meant to remove double registrations from voting lists but creates false positives 99 percent of the time. These can then be used to purge voters off voter registration lists. The vice chair and de facto head of the commission, Kris Kobach, was recently fined $1,000 for attempting to hide a document in which he advised the president on how to suppress the vote more effectively, revealing the true purpose of the commission once again.
If the US experience is any indication, the rightward shift of established conservative parties and the rise of new right-wing political parties like the AfD and the Front National will likely spur an increase in voter suppression tactics. There is a real and significant risk that such trends will fundamentally undermine the public’s trust in democratic institutions and processes, and allow an increasingly small number of people to hold disproportionate power.