Polarization and Voting Rights

The 48th anniversary of the bloody beginning of the Selma March at the Edmund Pettis Bridge is as good a time as any to talk about the possibly imminent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the U.S. Supreme Court (or at least five members of that Court).

At Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz answers Justice Roberts’ recent question during oral arguments about the need for the “discriminatory” application of Section 5 by looking at recent evidence of racial polarization in voting in the states covered by that law. The abysmal performance of Republicans among nonwhite voters everywhere is so notable that it’s sometimes difficult to see the South as more polarized racially and politically than the rest of the country. But still, in as of 2008 (the last time we had national exit polls in a presidential election), nonwhite voters made up 62% of the Democratic coalition in the Section 5 states and only 35% in the rest of the country. And historically, there’s no question racial polarization has played a huge part in the Republican takeover of the Deep South, beginning with the hyper-racialized states of Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina and then spreading to the rest of the region.

Speaking of the Republican takeover, however, Abramowitz makes a key point about the particularly poor timing of any judicially imposed abandonment of Section 5:

All nine covered states currently have Republican governors and Republican majorities in both chambers of their legislatures. This means that political leaders in these states have a powerful incentive to suppress or dilute the votes of African Americans and other minorities because these groups make up the large majority of the Democratic electoral base in their states. Moreover, as the majority party, they also have the ability to enact laws and regulations to accomplish these goals.

And they can do so, of course, without significant negative impact on their own voters. Even if you think the evidence of especially persistent racism in the Deep South is mixed, this is a temptation to voter suppression that no honest person can expect Southern Republicans to resist.

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.