War on Voting Post-Mortem

Since The Nation‘s Ari Berman probably did more than any other individual writer to draw attention to Republican-backed voter suppression efforts during the 2012 cycle, it’s appropriate to turn to him for an assessment of how it all worked out.

Berman points to the defeat of a voter ID ballot initiative in Minnesota as emblemizing the ways in which GOP overreach may have backfired:

In May 2011, a poll showed that 80 percent of Minnesotans supported a photo ID law. “Nearly everyone in the state believed a photo ID was the most common-sense solution to the problem of voter fraud,” says Dan McGrath, executive director of Take Action Minnesota, a progressive coalition that led the campaign against the amendment. “We needed to reframe the issue. We decided to never say the word ‘fraud.’ Instead we would only talk about the cost, complications and consequences of the amendment.” According to the coalition, the photo ID law would have disenfranchised eligible voters (including members of the military and seniors) dumped an unfunded mandate on counties and imperiled same-day voter registration. On election day, 52 percent of Minnesotans opposed the amendment.

The courts blunted a lot of voter suppression measures as well, and in the final analysis the effort to stop young and minority voters from turning out as they did in 2008 failed:

After the 2010 election, in more than a dozen states Republicans passed voting restrictions aimed at reducing the turnout of Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant”—young voters, African-Americans and Hispanics. The strategy didn’t work as intended. Ten major restrictive voting laws were blocked in court over the past year, and turnout among young, black and Latino voters increased as a share of the electorate in 2012 compared with 2008. The youth vote rose from 18 to 19 percent, and the minority vote increased from 26 to 28 percent; both went heavily for Obama.

But as Berman notes, Republicans did succeed in restricting early voting, particularly in Florida, and in encouraging election-day chaos in a way that disproportionately affected minority voters:

A flood of horror stories poured in during early voting and on election day: voters waiting in line for seven hours in Florida, wrongly turned away for lack of photo ID in Pennsylvania, improperly forced to cast provisional ballots in Ohio. The day after the election, 600,000 early votes and provisional ballots remained uncounted in Arizona, most of them in heavily Latino Maricopa County. According to Hart Research Associates, black and Hispanic voters were two to three times more likely than whites to wait more than thirty minutes to cast their ballot.

Republicans may kick around the idea of changing their message to improve their appeal to young and minority voters. But the odds are high that in the end they’ll rely on voter suppression so long as they control so many state and local governments.

The most immediate threat to voting rights comes from a different direction:

Just three days after the election, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a conservative challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which compels parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to clear election-related rule changes with the federal government. The case will likely be heard early next year. Veteran Court watchers believe the five conservative justices are prepared to overturn Section 5, which Attorney General Eric Holder has called the “keystone of our voting rights.”

So the fight is hardly over, particularly if memories of this election fade as rapidly as did those of 2000, which produced no more than the toothless Help America Vote Act.

By federal statute or by state or local action, the right to vote can be strengthened. But short of a constitutional amendment, it will never be safe so long as partisan advantage can be achieved by making the exercise of the franchise more difficult.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.