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Supreme Court ruling, abusive politics are putting the right to vote at risk

If you live in Erie County, good news. Prospective voters descended on the Board of Elections last week, registering to take part in the most contentious and significant presidential primary season in decades. And there’s more good news: When those voters show up at the polls, the overwhelming likelihood is that they’ll be able to cast their ballots without unreasonable delay.

For voters in Arizona, not so much. There, on their primary election day, voters who weren’t systematically disenfranchised were able to vote only because they outlasted the effort to deprive them of their right.

Maricopa County, under the pretense of cutting costs, drastically reduced the number of polling places since the last presidential election, leaving many voters waiting for hours to cast their ballots. It was a travesty, and almost certainly aimed at depressing the influence of voters in Phoenix, Maricopa County’s largest city – overwhelmingly Democratic and where non-white residents make up a majority of the population. The rest of the county is mainly Republican.

Consider the enormity of what happened. In the 2012 presidential election, voters in Maricopa County, home to about 4.2 million people, could cast their ballots in one of 200 polling places. In this month’s presidential primary, there were only 60 polling places, about one for every 21,000 voters, according to the Arizona Republic. In the rest of the state, there was one polling place for every 2,500 voters. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton has asked the Justice Department to investigate, complaining not only about the lack of voting places, but that there were proportionately fewer ones in areas with larger minority populations.

Something similar has happened in other states, as voters in Florida had to wait hours to cast their ballots in the 2012 presidential election. In other states, elected officials have imposed voting restrictions that are clearly meant to depress the vote in areas where Democrats can influence results.

Much of this was sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, which – as becomes more obvious by the day – is necessary to prevent elected officials in some states from trying to rig the system.

This is not a difficult concept. States should be in the business of encouraging public participation in selecting governments. That’s how they secure their legitimacy, even among those whose candidates lost. To the extent that governments try to restrict voting, and thus to cheat their own residents, they can be presumed to be gaming the system. They merit investigation by the Justice Department.

Yet, these kinds of obstacles are being thrown up with impunity, and exclusively in states controlled by Republicans: Florida, Texas, Ohio and more. The reason may be as obvious and crass as demographics. The nation’s Hispanic population is exploding and, partly due to Republicans’ approach to them, it votes heavily Democratic. For the same reason, so do African-Americans and women. Young people, for whom gay rights are about as controversial as a haircut, are also leaning toward Democrats.

It doesn’t have to be that way and, indeed, it’s destructive both for democracy and for those voting groups to favor one party so exclusively. What is necessary is for Republicans to deliver a welcoming and meaningful message to those voters. But, unable or unwilling to open their doors, and with population trends militating against them, many Republicans seek to depress Democratic turnout.

Ultimately, it’s futile. They can hold back the tide of demographics no more than King Canute could keep the tide from coming in. There will come a tipping point, by which time efforts to appeal to those voters will fall on uninterested ears.

But that’s the practical, political case. More important is the small-d democratic case, in which politicians who love to boast about American exceptionalism and brag about the world’s greatest democracy are working diligently to undermine the country and the Constitution.

Living in New York is challenging in many ways, but voters around the state, including Western New York, are at least able to vote without government harassment. Plainly, though, it is a right that many citizens have to view as at risk.