When Republicans took over more than twenty state legislatures in the 2010 midterm elections, they made no secret of the fact that high on their agenda was restricting future access to the voting booth, especially for minorities and young people, who tend to vote Democratic. The threat of voter fraud was the excuse Republicans gave for making it harder to vote, although there is no evidence that fraud is a problem. A recent Loyola Law School Study found only thirty-one credible allegations of fraud out of the billion votes it covered. In short, the drumbeat of alarm about widespread fraud is false. A more serious threat to trust in our democratic system are Republican efforts to suppress the vote. In Kansas, for example, voters must show proof of citizenship, not merely a photo ID. In the March presidential primary in Arizona the state closed 70 percent of its polling stations in a supposed effort to save money. Defying this transparent attempt at disenfranchisement, voters stood in line for hours after the polls’ closing time, determined to cast their ballots.

Republicans are not wrong about one thing: African Americans, Latinos, and young people do tend to vote Democratic. Republicans need to find a way to win the loyalty of these groups, not shut them out of the voting booth. 

Seventeen states have new voting restrictions in place in this presidential election; most include tough photo ID requirements and cutbacks on same-day registration and early-voting periods. For the poor, the expense of acquiring the documentation required for a state ID often amounts to a poll tax. Most of these new restrictions would have been illegal under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a law renewed repeatedly by Congress and signed by Republican presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. Despite their denunciations of judicial activism, that history of legislative consensus did not prevent the Supreme Court’s Republican majority from overturning a nearly sixty-year-old precedent in the name of a supposedly “color blind” Constitution. In its 5-4 Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013, the Court essentially gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required preclearance from the Justice Department or the courts when states with a history of discrimination sought to change local voting regulations. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that discrimination was a thing of the past. It was no longer constitutional to impose special burdens on states where African Americans now hold prominent political positions and participate in elections in record numbers. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the common-sense observation that high minority participation was the result of the scrutiny provided by the Voting Rights Act, not a reason to do away with it. “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” Ginsburg wrote. She further objected that the decision erred “by overriding Congress’s decision.”    

Ginsburg’s fears were immediately vindicated. The day after the Shelby County decision was handed down, North Carolina’s Republican legislature passed one of the nation’s most restrictive voting laws, eliminating same-day voter registration, cutting back on early voting by a week, doing away with preregistration for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, and requiring a driver’s license or state-issued photo ID to vote. Curtailing early voting and ending same-day registration disproportionately affect African Americans and Latinos, many of whom are transported to the polls by their churches on Sundays. In North Carolina, for example, 70 percent of black voters have used early voting. In the last presidential election, black voters, while only 20 percent of the electorate, made up 41 percent of same-day registrations. It is also estimated that more than three hundred thousand registered North Carolina voters do not have a driver’s license or state ID card. None of these restrictions, clearly designed to suppress minority voting, would have passed scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act before the Shelby decision. Last month, however, the Federal District Court in Winston-Salem, N.C., rejected challenges to North Carolina’s law brought by the Justice Department, the NAACP, and the ACLU. That decision is now being appealed to the U.S. Fourth District Court of Appeals. Whether the law will remain in effect for the November election, in one of the nation’s crucial swing states, is uncertain.

Efforts to suppress minority voting are going on across the country, from Texas to Wisconsin, from Arizona to Pennsylvania. It was not that long ago that black and white civil-rights workers risked their lives—and dozens lost them—in the bloody struggle to enfranchise black voters and bring an end to Jim Crow across the South. For many Americans, the sacrifice and heroism of those who used non-violent protest to end legal segregation was a vindication of the nation’s highest ideals and a redress of its most egregious sin. The cynical, orchestrated campaign to undo that legacy by raising new barricades around the voting booth is the real fraud.

Published in the May 20, 2016 issue: View Contents
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