Doug Mastriano, Pennsylvania's Republican nominee for governor and a leader of the Stop the Steal campaign, wants every voter in the state to reregister to vote, claiming that it’s the only way to regain Americans’ trust in the voting process.
“We might have to reset, as far as registration, start that whole process over here,” Mastriano said on the conservative news channel Newsmax last month. “There’s still a lot of dead [people] on the rolls … and there’s ghost phantom voters that we found, as well, at various addresses.”
While a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled in the weeks prior to the 2020 election that there was no evidence that “phantom voters” were an actual problem in the state, critics believe Mastriano’s ulterior motive is to keep minority communities from voting.
“[Mastriano’s] stated desire to have voters reregister is a dog whistle designed to reinforce the racist belief that Black and other BIPOC voters are not, in fact, fully enfranchised citizens guaranteed the same rights as white voters,” Cynthia Ann Young, author of “Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left” and associate professor of African American Studies and English at Pennsylvania State University, told Yahoo News. “The irony, however, is that were his scheme to be implemented, many white, rural voters would be excluded from the voter rolls.”
While legal experts say the move would likely violate both state and federal law, election officials believe the move would also be a logistical nightmare.
“It’s just a bad idea all the way around,” Democrat Edgardo Cortes, an election security consultant and Virginia’s former election commissioner, told the Associated Press. Cortes noted that forcing voters to reregister would do nothing to ensure against the potential for voter fraud.
“The minute you reregister everyone, you run into these things again.”
As one of Pennsylvania’s most prominent supporters of former president Trump’s disproven assertion that widespread voter fraud cost him the 2020 presidential election, Mastriano — a state senator and retired U.S. Army colonel — has repeatedly said that if he’s elected to the state’s highest office, he would use this tactic to purge voter rolls.
“We’re going to start all over again,” Mastriano said once again during a gubernatorial primary debate in April. Mastriano did not return several requests for comment from Yahoo News.
Pennsylvania remains one of the few states where the governor appoints a Secretary of State who oversees statewide elections. This means a Mastriano win in November could test whether laws on the books could be overturned.
“I get to appoint the secretary of state, who’s delegated from me the power to make the corrections to elections, the voting logs and everything,” Mastriano said back in March during WPIC’s Eric Bombeck radio show. “I could decertify every machine in the state with the stroke of a pen via my secretary of state.”
Such sweeping moves would be a throwback to a time when Black Americans were routinely presented with hurdles that kept them from exercising their right to vote. In the post-Reconstruction period, Southern states instituted annual reregistration requirements in an effort to prevent Black Americans from voting. Those requirements were put in place after Blacks voted in droves in the 1860s, electing 22 Black men to serve in Congress following the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments, granting African American men the right to vote. The registration requirement became just one of many so-called “Black codes,” which restricted Black Americans’ rights, including regulations on the kinds of jobs Black people could have and limits on property ownership .
Many of these laws in the South lasted on the books through 1971, when a landmark court decision in Texas struck down reregistration requirements, calling them a “direct descendant of the poll tax.”
“It is beyond doubt that the present Texas voter registration procedures tend to disenfranchise multitudes of Texas citizens otherwise qualified to vote,” the ruling stated.
Christel Temple, a professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, sees Mastriano’s campaign pledge as a thinly veiled return to overtly discriminatory practices.
“If Mastriano’s plan happened to be baiting the community with seemingly racial-infused assumptions and stereotypes, it is simply a tactic to gain votes,” Temple told Yahoo News. “In a 2017 Pew study on why citizens do not register to vote, reasons related to apathy and the lack of inspirational candidates far outweighed reasons related to convenience, opportunity, felonies and a desire for privacy.”
In many ways, the most powerful groups in America have always wanted voting to be difficult feat for the disenfranchised and simple for their own base. From the country’s inception and when the U.S. constitution was ratified, there was no such thing as registered voters.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century that voting rolls began to be compiled in regions like New England, but the responsibility fell mainly on the U.S. government. It was more than 100 years before every state created its own voter registration system, though the standards varied widely. In the mid 1830s, for example, Pennsylvania created its voting system and standards, but Philadelphia continued to follow its own law that mandated that assessors go door to door to register voters.
“Although the proclaimed goal of the law was to reduce fraud, opponents insisted that its real intent was to reduce the participation of the poor, who were frequently not home when assessors came by,” author and Harvard University History professor Alexander Keyssar wrote in “The Right to Vote,” a book that chronicles American political history.
In the decades that followed, as Black, Latino and other communities of color gained more social rights in the country, groups that were threatened by their political fortitude began to institute other forms of voter suppression tactics like literacy tests and residency requirements, which became the groundwork for Jim Crow laws of the mid 20th century.
Much of the poll tax ideology may still be in place today, experts believe, had it not been for the Civil Rights movement.
“Rights won in one moment can be lost in another,” Young said. “Without constant vigilance and organized struggle against such racism, Black people can easily lose what we have fought and died to secure."
“Mastriano and his ilk count on us being exhausted — we are — and — we are not — and just as with reproductive rights, we have to say loudly and clearly that there will be no return to a fantastical vision of a white nation that exploits Black labor and intellect without granting us our constitutionally guaranteed rights,” she added.
Temple, the professor from Pittsburgh, believes Mastriano’s campaign rhetoric may backfire and energize the same base of voters he is trying to keep out.
“There has been an attempt to replace [overt voting prohibitions] with subtler forms of intimidation, but the Black community is not intimidated,” Temple said. “Instead, it is empowered because voting is no longer a matter of life or death, as it often was in the South prior to Civil Rights gains. Mastriano’s idea to force voter reregistration does not present the Black community with a painful emotional recall of the type of disenfranchisement that we fought to end during the Civil Rights Movement.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images, Daniel J. Ransohoff/Cincinnati Museum Center/Getty Images