Ohio's quarter-mile early-voting lines? That's what voter suppression looks like

<span>Photograph: Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images

In-person early voting started in Ohio this week, and in the state’s largest cities, it was a total mess. In Columbus, the line stretched for a quarter of a mile. In Cuyahoga county, the hours-long wait began before polls even opened.

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All of this was entirely predictable. Thanks to an Ohio state law passed in 2006 by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed by a Republican governor, the number of in-person early voting sites is limited to just one per county. That means Vinton County, a Republican stronghold in the state’s southeast that’s home to just 13,500 Ohioans, has approximately 97 times more polling-places-per-voter than Franklin County, the deep-blue bastion with a population of more than 1.3 million.

The office of Frank LaRose, Ohio’s chief elections official, recently tweeted that “lines are due to enthusiasm”. But blaming voters for the long lines they endure ignores the massive, intentional disparity in resources between the more and less populous parts of the state. Ohio’s politicians have made voting far easier for Republicans and far more difficult for Democrats. But what makes the needlessly long lines that have appeared throughout Ohio’s cities particularly notable is that they are not merely the result of election mismanagement or an ad hoc act of voter suppression. Instead, they reflect a view of democracy that prioritizes the imaginary preferences of land over the very real preferences of people, and in so doing, undermines the principle of “One Person, One Vote”.

To understand exactly what makes the actions of Ohio’s Republican politicians so insidious, and so antithetical to modern democracy, it’s important to understand the history of One Person, One Vote – a concept that sounds timeless, but in fact is younger than George Clooney. At the turn of the 20th century, as Americans began migrating from the countryside to cities, rural politicians came up with ways to retain power without having to retain population. The simplest way to do this was to avoid redrawing legislative district boundaries every year. The population of cities boomed – but the number of representatives allocated to them did not.

By 1960, American representation, or lack thereof, had become almost farcical. Maricopa county, Arizona, which contained the city of Phoenix and more than half the state’s population, elected just one-third of the state’s representatives to Congress. “One state senator represented Los Angeles county, which had a population of more than 6 million people,” write authors Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel, “while another represented three northern California rural counties with a total population of 14,294.” Author Anthony Lewis provides an example from Connecticut: “177,000 citizens of Hartford elected two members of the state house of representatives; so did the town of Colebrook, population 592.” (The most egregious example of what political scientists call “malapportionment” was surely in New Hampshire, where one district’s assemblyman represented a constituency of three.)

Another strategy politicians used to maintain control despite dwindling popular support was to distribute power by county rather than by population. The most infamous of these was Georgia’s “county unit system”. Created in 1917, the system gave each county a set number of votes in Democratic primaries: urban counties received six votes, towns received four, and rural counties received two. Atlanta’s Fulton county had a population 80 times larger than that of three least-populous counties combined, yet they received an identical six votes. Because Democrats dominated Georgia, the winner of the party primary was the de facto winner of the general election – which made the county unit system a powerful tool for disenfranchising urban voters in general, and Black voters (who were more likely to live in cities) in particular.

These kinds of representation-skewing schemes were immoral. But for most of the 20th century, they weren’t illegal. For decades, the supreme court held that district populations were a political question the judiciary had no business deciding. But in 1962, the justices concluded that malapportionment couldn’t be corrected through the normal electoral process. It left voters powerless to reclaim their power. In Baker v Carr Justice William Brennan declared that malapportionment – if sufficiently egregious – violated the constitution.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of the Baker decision. In the months that followed, district maps were struck down in a dozen states. The county unit system was overturned. In 1964, the court ruled that congressional districts, not just state legislative ones, were required to have roughly equal populations. As Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, notes in The Fight to Vote, 93 of 99 state legislative maps were redrawn in just four years.

Chief Justice Earl Warren later called Baker v Carr the most important decision issued by his court. He also summarized the principle behind that decision perfectly. “Legislators represent people,” he wrote. “Not trees or acres.” That principle – that power belongs to the people rather than the land – is what we now call one person, one vote.

Sixty years after Baker, the urban-rural divide in our politics is starker than ever. Democrats have become the parties of cities and the denser suburbs, Republicans the party of exurbs and rural areas. Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. But while the Republican party has lagged among America’s people, it represents the vast majority of America’s acres and trees.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the people have shown themselves willing to fight for representative democracy

Which brings us back to Columbus and Cleveland, where brutally long voting lines have turned casting a ballot into a feat of endurance. It’s no longer possible to directly allocate votes by county (although that’s likely to be tested if Amy Coney Barrett joins the existing conservative majority on the court). But it is still possible to allocate voting resources by county, in an effort to make voting exponentially more difficult for urban voters than for rural ones. The goal of LaRose’s one-polling-place-per-county order is no different than that of the politicians who devised Georgia’s county unit system more than 100 years ago: diminish the political power of the cities at the expense of the countryside.

Distressingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, it’s not just Ohio where one person, one vote is under attack. In Georgia’s 2018 election, Atlanta received far fewer voting machines per voter than rural, redder counties elsewhere in the state. States like Wisconsin have been gerrymandered to pack urban voters into a relative handful of districts while giving rural voters as many representatives as possible. Earlier this month in Texas, the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, limited the number of drop boxes for mail-in ballots to just one per county, even though the state’s most populous county has – and this is not a typo – 2,780,000% more residents than the least populous. No wonder that in Houston, long lines of cars are snaking outside Harris county’s single drop-off site.

If there’s a silver lining in all this, it’s that the American people have shown themselves willing to fight for representative democracy. Thus far, the attacks on voting in states like Ohio and Texas seem to have backfired, leading to more awareness, more outrage and, ultimately, higher turnout. But in the long term, Americans must reckon with the fact that one of our two political parties increasingly sees representative democracy as either a hassle or a threat.

In the 2020 election, there’s good reason to hope that the voters will stand up to defend our system of government. That said, they shouldn’t have to. Democracy shouldn’t be on the ballot every four years. If and when Democrats regain control of Congress, the White House or state governments across America, they’ll have plenty of challenges to tackle. But nothing will be more important – or ultimately, more essential to changing the country’s course – than reasserting a fundamental but fragile principle of our democracy: in America, the ultimate source of power is the people. Period.

  • This article was amended on 15 October 2020 to clarify that the number of polling places per county was limited by Ohio state lawmakers, not the Ohio Secretary of State, as an earlier version said

  • David Litt is an American political speechwriter and author of the comedic memoir Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years