When it comes to voting rights, the good news is that the U.S. Supreme Court has preserved the concept of “one person, one vote” with its recent decision in Evenwel v Abbott. However, the bad news is that there is a war taking place against voting rights across the country that is being orchestrated by the Republican Party. Think of Jim Crow segregation laws blocking the right to vote for people of color on a massive scale, except this time it is taking place in the twenty-first century. And the scale of the vote-blocking, vote-purging and outright vote stealing is more impressive than anyone could have imagined.
In Evenwel, two Texas residents sought to change the way their state counts people for carving up electoral districts. They wanted Texas to count only the voting population rather than the total population, arguing that counting nonvoters such as prisoners, children under 18 and noncitizens were diluting their vote. The nation’s high court rejected that argument with an uncommonly unanimous decision.
Meanwhile, 2016 marks the first presidential election since the heart of the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. In Shelby County v. Holder, the court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the enforcement mechanism that required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to get preclearance from the Justice Department before making any changes to their voting laws. At the time of the ruling, nine states and parts of six other states, primarily in the Deep South, the former Confederacy, fell under this preclearance requirement. The law had been enacted in 1965 due to voter suppression tactics against African-Americans, with civil rights workers facing lynchings and police beatdowns in the process.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 34 states have voter ID laws. When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, it created a free-for-all, paving the way for 13 states, including some of the worst voting rights offenders of the Jim Crow era—to enact voter ID laws. Across the country, 21 million people, especially low-income blacks and Latinos, do not have proper identification.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner–a lone Republican voice in the wilderness–wants to restore the enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act and make it apply to all states. He introduced the Voting Rights Act of 2015. “Ensuring that every eligible voter can cast a ballot without fear, deterrence and prejudice is a basic American right. I would rather lose my job than suppress votes to keep it,” he wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. “The Voting Rights Act not only stops discrimination, but also strengthens the public’s faith that votes will be counted and elections remain fair. The 2016 primary season has been marred by hateful rhetoric and ugly politics. Passing the Voting Rights Act of 2015 would be Congress’s most enlightened response,” he added.
“Today, the war on voting rights has escalated in the land of the free.”
However, the leadership of Sensenbrenner’s party is not listening. In an election year where the standard bearers of the GOP are Donald Trump and Ted Cruz—with their appeal among conservatives due in no small part to their appeals to xenophobia and the isolation of Latinos, Muslims and others—it is close to impossible to imagine a Republican push for strengthening voting rights for voters of color. Today, the war on voting rights has escalated in the land of the free. And the Republicans are the party of voter suppression, opting to choose their electorate from a dwindling base of angry rightwing white guys, and prevent everyone else from voting–in a country where already, a majority of babies are of color:
- North Carolina enacted a voter ID law that included an ID requirement in order to vote, eliminated early voting and same-day registration, and other measures to make it harder to vote. At the time of the March primary, 218,000 registered voters in North Carolina did not have the appropriate ID to vote.
- In April, the state of Texas urged the Supreme Court to allow its voter ID law, one of the strictest in America, to stay in place. Critics of the law claim that 600,000 Texas voters do not possess the necessary identification, and a federal judge had ruled that the Texas law was unconstitutional because it was passed for racially discriminatory reasons, and violated federal law due to a racially discriminatory effect on minority voters.
- The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating election impropriety in Maricopa County, Arizona as the number of polling places were reduced from 200 in 2012 to only 60 this year, voters were forced to wait five hours at the polls.
- In Ohio, the ACLU and Demos sued the state’s election chief, alleging that voters were illegally purged, including 40,000 in Cuyahoga County alone for deciding not to vote, with people of color disproportionately impacted.
- Last fall, Alabama closed 31 DMV locations in the state after passing its voter ID law, including offices in eight of the 10 counties with the highest concentration of African-American voters. It was a “cost-cutting” measure with clear racial overtones.
- In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers reportedly were “giddy” over passing the state’s strict voter ID law, believing it will help them at the polls. The law, which requires a government ID in order to vote, could bar as many as 300,000 registered voters from the polls. When Cruz beat Trump in the Wisconsin Republican primary, Rep. Glenn Grothman was a little too honest: “Well, I think Hillary Clinton is just about the weakest candidate the Democrats have ever put up, and now we have photo ID, and I think photo ID is going to make a little bit of a difference as well.” The state also eliminated early voting and registration drives by grassroots groups.
- Throughout the country, 6 million people are barred from voting due to Jim Crow felony disenfranchisement laws. In Florida, with the largest number of disenfranchised voters, over 10 per cent of adults cannot vote due to a felony record, including nearly one-quarter of black men.
There was once a time when the Republicans were a party of civil rights. The GOP ushered in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and once supported voting rights when liberals and moderates were in the party. During Jim Crow segregation, the Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party maintained Southern domination by suppressing the Black vote and erecting barriers such as literacy tests with trick questions (such as “how many bubbles in a bar of soap?”), poll taxes, whites-only Democratic primaries and elaborate registration schemes–all enforced under the threat of police and Ku Klux Klan violence.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the exodus of disaffected white Southerners, segregationists who were resentful over black power and the gains of African-Americans, began in earnest. The GOP capitalized on white fear of a black planet, with a Southern Strategy that utilized race card politics as a key to electoral success. The late Republican strategist Lee Atwater summed it up well:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N—-r, n—-r, n—-,’ ” said Atwater. “By 1968, you can’t say ‘n—-r’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
“When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”
In the autopsy report on their 2012 presidential election loss, the Republicans had what was supposed to be a day of reckoning and a time for reflection. “The GOP today is a tale of two parties. One of them, the gubernatorial wing, is growing and successful. The other, the federal wing, is increasingly marginalizing itself, and unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future,” the report said. The authors also warned, “young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”
Meanwhile, as the GOP was doing well on the state level, on the federal level it was merely talking to itself, the base. It was time, the report declared, for the Republicans to “smartly change course, modernize the Party, and learn once again how to appeal to more people, including those who share some but not all of our conservative principles.” There was a call to champion immigration reform in order to broaden the appeal of the party beyond the core white constituency, given that Latinos were projected to be as high as 29 percent of the U.S. population in 2050, and blacks and Asians would increase as well. And aside from losing abysmally among people of color, the GOP lost among women and young people.
The Center for American Progress issued a report echoing the concerns of the GOP autopsy: “The main challenges for Republicans in 2016 are twofold: first, an overreliance on white votes at the expense of building a broader demographic coalition in battleground states and, second, an agenda and political tone that is too conservative and exclusionary for a national electorate.”
Meanwhile, Republican-controlled states have utilized a computerized database called Interstate Crosscheck— purportedly designed to fight voter fraud—to identify nearly 7 million “potential” double voters for possible purging. This, despite the lack of any evidence that people engage in voter fraud by voting twice. And as Greg Palast has unearthed, hundreds of thousands of voters—particularly people of color—already have been blocked.