The Wrong Kind

Suppressing voter turnout?

In 2008, Barack Obama received only 43 percent of the white vote; without the support of minority voters, he would have lost the election. African Americans, in particular, turned out in record numbers for a chance to elect the country’s first black president.

For a short time after the election, it looked as though the GOP would respond by trying harder to compete for the support of minorities. The Republican National Committee chose Michael Steele, an African American, as its chairman and asked Louisiana’s young Indian American governor, Bobby Jindal, to respond to President Obama’s first State of the Union address. In view of the country’s growing minority populations and shrinking white majority, the party of Lincoln appeared to be reaching back to its roots

Since then, however, the GOP seems to have given up on attracting many more minority voters in time for the 2012 election, and has switched to another strategy: If you can’t get them to join you, beat them back—with laws that make it harder to vote. Since the 2010 midterm elections, more than a dozen Republican-controlled states have passed laws that require photo IDs at polling stations, impede voter-registration drives, reduce early-voting periods, or redraw electoral-district maps. Despite their superficial neutrality, these laws have a disproportionate effect on minorities and the poor, as well as students, the elderly, and those with disabilities—all groups that tend to vote Democratic.

A few of these new laws have since been blocked as violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In December 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice rejected a South Carolina law requiring voters to present state-issued photo identification. Last month, a federal court struck down a similar law in Texas and found that the state’s new redistricting plan intentionally diluted the voting power of its growing Hispanic communities. In Florida, meanwhile, a federal district judge blocked a law that placed heavy restrictions on voter registration, describing it as “impractical” and “burdensome,” while a federal court in Washington, D.C., rejected part of another law that gave Florida’s local election officials the authority to shorten early-voting periods—this in a state where blacks have been much more likely than whites to vote early and to register during voter drives. In Ohio, the Republican secretary of state arranged to cut back on early-voting hours in Democratic counties but not in Republican ones. After the national media got hold of the story, he was shamed into announcing that all counties would follow the same early-voting schedule after all.

But new requirements and restrictions in other states have either gone unchallenged or been upheld. Judge Robert Simpson of Pennsylvania, a Republican, found that his state’s recently adopted photo-ID requirement “is a reasonable, nondiscriminatory, nonsevere burden when viewed in the broader context of the widespread use of photo ID in daily life.” (He chose to overlook the boast of the Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania House: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania—done.”)

Many conservatives agree with Judge Simpson. The point, they say, is not to suppress voter turnout but merely to eliminate fraud, and if this involves some inconvenience to voters, so much the better. As Florida State Senator Mike Bennett put it, “I don’t have a problem making [voting] harder. I want people in Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who walks 200 miles across the desert. This should be something you do with a passion.” William O’Brien, New Hampshire’s Republican House Speaker, argues that “voting is a duty of greater importance than taking a plane, train, or going into a commercial or federal building, which all require ID.” But voting is not just a duty; it is a right. And we do it no honor by making it unnecessarily difficult. The reason planes and trains require photo IDs is to avoid the real risk of terrorism. There is no similarly compelling reason to require photo IDs at polling stations. According to a 2011 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, “It’s more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.” The Bush Justice Department spent five years aggressively investigating voter fraud, and during that time not one person was prosecuted for impersonating an eligible voter.

The real risk for the GOP is that a high turnout among minority and low-income voters might keep Obama in the White House. As arch-conservative Matthew Vadum has explained, “the poor can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians…. Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals.” The point, then, is to protect the electoral system not from fraud but from the wrong kind of voter, the kind that demands policies—on taxes, entitlements, and immigration reform—that the Republican Party is not yet willing to consider. It may take a big loss to cure them of their obstinacy.

September 10, 2012

Published in the 2012-09-28 issue: 
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