By PHIL KABLER
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — During her 15 years as executive director of the League of Women Voters from 2000 to 2015, Nancy Tate focused on fighting voter suppression through gerrymandering or overly restrictive voter ID laws — only to see entirely new ways to manipulate elections emerge in 2016.
“Clearly, these kinds of things, like hacking inside information and the use of social media is new, and hit this election like nothing we’ve ever seen,” Tate said last week after a week teaching and lecturing at the University of Charleston as a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow.
The hacking and release of internal Democratic Party emails, along with what Tate called, “the targeted marketing of social media to certain persons with what I’ll call erroneous information,” moved elections into uncharted territories.
“Whether that influenced the outcome of the election is open to debate,” Tate said of the 2016 presidential race, adding that it certainly will influence election procedures going forward.
“It’s a different dynamic, and it’s something all election officials are going to worry about going forward,” she said.
In her home state of Virginia, Tate said, lawmakers responded with legislation outlawing electronic voting machines to eliminate any possibility that the election returns could be hacked.
“I talked about that in a couple of classes, and the students laughed because it sounds like going backwards,” she said, adding, “It actually makes sense as a security measure to take off the possibility an election could be hacked.”
Tate said she believes it would be enormously unlikely that the outcome of a national election could be hacked, since it would require corrupting election results at the county or even precinct level in thousands of locations.
However, she said the real concern is that Russians or other outside forces were able to target specific groups of voters with material on social media that she said was, “at best, inflammatory, or, at worst, outright lies.”
Tate, who is now co-chair of the 2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative, marking the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, focused her work at the League of Women Voters on stopping voter suppression.
That includes a wave of overly restrictive voter ID laws that swept across the country beginning about 2010, despite evidence that any instances of individual voter fraud are “infinitesimally small,” Tate said.
She noted that even proponents of voter ID laws will say, “We’re not sure if we have a problem, but let’s do this just in case we might have a problem.”
The issue, Tate said, is that overly restrictive voter ID laws, such as requiring certain types of photo identification, affect specific groups of voters more than others, including 18- to-25-year-olds, lower-income households, people of color and, often, members of the military serving overseas.
Likewise, she said gerrymandering — when elected officials draw voting districts to maximize their chances for re-election — effectively suppresses voters of other parties by minimizing chances their candidates can defeat the incumbent.
“It allows politicians to pick their voters, instead of voters picking their politicians,” Tate said.
Unlike voter identification, which is generally pushed by Republicans, gerrymandering seems to be a bipartisan offense, she said, with the party in power in each state predisposed to draw districts to benefit its incumbents.
“This practice is less about partisanship and more about incumbent protection,” she said.
Meanwhile, Tate said after an initial review of West Virginia election law, she would put the state in the middle of the pack, neither highly regressive nor progressive.
“You do have online voter registration, and you do have early voting,” she said. “You have voter ID, but you have a variety of different types of identification recognized as acceptable for voting.”
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