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The Globe and Mail

Don’t focus on Georgia. Voter suppression is the issue

Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media.

Last night, in the most expensive U.S. House election ever, Republican Karen Handel beat Democrat Jon Ossoff by 3.8 percentage points, a fairly narrow margin for a seat the GOP won by 23.4 points in November.

That turnout was high, and that Mr. Ossoff came much closer than previous Democratic contenders says a few things about the U.S. political climate. It shows that U.S. citizens are more civically engaged and apt to vote in special elections, which previously did not attract high turnouts. It shows that both parties are so frantic for a clear post-Trump win that they will pump an absurd amount of money into a tiny race in the Georgia suburbs. It shows how any electoral contest, no matter its regional particularities, can be framed as a national referendum on Mr. Trump, the state of the Democratic and Republican parties, the GOP health-care plan, and any other issue stoking widespread anxiety.

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Related: Republican Karen Handel wins congressional race in Georgia, thanks Trump

But what this race could never do is predict the events of November, 2018. And the panic, excitement and blame surrounding Ossoff vs. Handel was about exactly that: seeking a signpost, no matter how faint, for what lies ahead in the midterms. Had Mr. Ossoff squeaked out a win, the Democrats would be crowing about Mr. Trump's crumbling empire. Now that Mr. Ossoff has lost, the blame game has begun, targeting everything from Nancy Pelosi's "San Francisco values" to the weather.

That Mr. Ossoff lost is less of a bad sign for the Democrats than that most of Mr. Trump's opponents – be they Democrats, anti-Trump Republicans, or independents – are still trapped in 2016, an era before the Trump administration commenced an ongoing assault on constitutional rights. Using Ossoff vs. Handel as a prognosticator of the 2018 midterms ignores the very likely possibility that the midterms will not be free or fair.

The priority of the Democrats – or anyone who values freedom and fairness – should be combatting voter suppression. It does not matter how great your candidate is if people cannot vote, and it does not matter what their platform is if millions are disenfranchised. It is very likely that they will be.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court enacted a partial repeal of the Voting Rights Act in June, 2013, many U.S. states have passed new voter ID laws making it more difficult for racial minorities, the poor and the elderly to vote. Voter suppression was so severe in 2016 that it arguably determined the winner in close states such as Wisconsin, where more than 200,000 voters were disenfranchised and Mr. Trump won by 22,748 votes. Even more states will have voter ID laws on the books in 2018, to the delight of the Trump administration, which has placed notorious opponents of civil rights such as Jeff Sessions in powerful roles.

In addition to long-standing GOP tactics such as voter suppression and gerrymandering, the continued threat of Russian interference looms. Last week brought the revelation that the 2016 Russia election cyberattack breached the voting rolls of more than 39 states, and the full extent of the damage has still not been assessed. It may never be: the Trump administration is far more concerned with obstructing the investigation into the interference that benefited them than making sure that future U.S. elections are immune from foreign manipulation.

On top of that, the Trump administration is taking active measures to further voter suppression, creating a "Voter Fraud Commission" based on Mr. Trump's lie that millions of citizens voted illegally. The commission is led by Kris Kobach, an anti-immigrant zealot who has aggressively peddled this myth and will likely use his position to make it more difficult for non-white citizens to cast their ballots.

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Every burgeoning autocracy exploits pre-existing injustices. In the United States, race-based voter suppression has long been in play and Russian interference remains an active threat. Given the Trump administration's unwillingness to confront white supremacists and its willingness to rewrite laws, one cannot assume that voter rights will not be removed for arbitrary and unfair reasons. Ensuring them requires constant vigilance.

Tragically, Mr. Ossoff understood this. When asked in a debate to name an issue he wouldn't compromise on, he answered: "voting rights," and cited Mr. Sessions as a threat. This stands in stark contrast to Ms. Handel, whose long record of voter suppression includes voter-ID laws, trying to purge thousands of voters and failing to secure Georgia's voting machines. The alarming thing about Ms. Handel is not that she won, but that she and other members of the GOP will use such tactics to ensure their win. That's what to watch out for in 2018.

Video: Georgia Republican Handel wins congressional race (Reuters)
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