Near Frontiers of the Fight for Voting Rights

The latest issue of Democracy features a symposium on voting rights, and since we were just talking about the difficulties Democrats will face in the midterms, I’d like to call attention to an article by my friend Jeff Hauser of the AFL-CIO forecasting the battles over ballot access that are likely to continue this year and next year.

Jeff recounts the voter-suppression fights of 2012 (which in the end went relatively well for the good guys), discusses the voting rights cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, and then notes the emerging Republican strategy for the off-year and midterm elections:

[E]ven if the somewhat unlikely legal winning streak of democracy proponents in 2012 were to continue, it’s also the case that conservatives now have a much clearer sense of what impediments to voting are likely to survive judicial scrutiny than they did in 2011, when the assault began. For instance, Ohio’s Secretary of State Jon Husted tried and largely failed to limit in-person early voting—which is widely believed to benefit Democrats—because his effort made an exception for military voters. A future effort may sacrifice the troops for partisan goals.

But the savviest conservative strategy would be to resist moves that directly bump up against popular and legal support for the right to vote and to further exploit judicial reluctance to investigate motive.

With the Supreme Court likely to retreat rapidly from past decisions imputing discriminatory intentions to voting practices having a discriminatory effect, Republicans can be expected to make voter suppression efforts appear “color-blind,” and in general avoid the legal confrontations that in 2012 cast a bright and unsavory light on their activities. The “long-lines” issue that the president has tried to highlight since November is a case in point:

Those [judicial] cases not only undermine the pushback against voter-ID laws, but more broadly empower politicians to aid themselves by making superficially neutral decisions like allocating insufficient funds for early voting or voting machines in poorer areas. It is clear that vastly longer lines for urban populations have not in and of themselves prompted legal scrutiny, which affords Republicans significant leeway for actions—or inaction—that are, ostensibly, racially and politically neutral. Under the nominally neutral principle of “local self-governance,” affluent GOP-leaning municipalities can more readily invest in adequate electoral infrastructure, from machines to voter education to poll worker training.

So the fight is really just moving onto newer and murkier ground, and with Congress exceedingly unlikely to do anything about it, the cold war against voting will remain hot just under the surface.

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.