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Voting rights becomes the new climate change

“Voter suppression doesn’t have to overturn an election to have an impact.”

The truth has been known for years.

But at first it doesn’t get much coverage because its impact maybe seems far off or hypothetical. When it does get covered, it gets framed as a partisan debate, with both sides given equal weight.

Then, boom, suddenly we’re staring an existential threat in the face. This is the cycle we went through with climate change for years before the media pushed its way out of false equivalence. It stopped giving doubters’ claims equal weight to scientific evidence. Climate change started getting covered as a real thing, not something that’s up for political debate.

Today we’re somewhere near the beginning of this stage with voting rights. Since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Republican legislatures across the country have passed sweeping restrictions that often make it harder for black and brown voters to exercise their franchise. And they’ve done it based on a made-up threat: voter fraud.

Stacks and stacks of research show that widespread voter fraud hasn’t been a problem in American elections. But the specter gets raised time and time again, often with racist undertones, as states make it more difficult to vote. And the coverage too often frames it as a “Republicans say, Democrats say” issue.

It’s an issue that’s going to take on even more significance in the 2020 election. Now, the coverage is beginning to shift. This will be the year it accelerates.

More and more journalists will understand this isn’t an issue you can ignore, or an issue you can frame as a debate. Yes, we’re an independent and nonpartisan press. We don’t choose sides. But we do traffic in facts. And we do call out lies.

People often ask the question whether any of these voter restrictions have actually swung an election. Now, that is up for debate, and a difficult question to answer. But it might not be the right question to ask.

Voter suppression doesn’t have to overturn an election to have an impact. Denying someone the right to vote is denying them power and participation in society. Not that long ago, black people were killed and beaten for trying to vote.

And, as we suddenly deal with the ravaging consequences of a warming planet, we won’t wait until voter suppression does actually alter the trajectory of our democracy to take it seriously.

Andrew Donohue is the managing editor of Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

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