JIM CROW REDUX
GOP Voter Suppression Is the Country’s Greatest Scandal
In state after state, the party enacts measures to solve a problem that does not exist but which targets African Americans, often with surgical precision.
A year after the 2016 election, it’s harder than ever for many people to vote, thanks to an array of new voting restrictions, such as states eliminating early voting, requiring photo ID, and closing polling stations.
It just so happens that all of those steps were passed by Republicans, and all hurt Democratic voters the most, in particular people of color.
What’s odd about this partisan battle, though, is that unlike, say, tax policy or foreign policy, where reasonable people might disagree about values, when it comes to voting, one side—the Republican side—is just plain lying.
There simply is no voter-fraud crisis. An exhaustive study by a Loyola law professor found that between 2000 and 2014, there were indeed 31 reported instances of voter impersonation. Out of more than a billion votes cast.
Those are some steep odds: One possible instance per 32 million votes. Your odds of becoming president yourself are one in 10 million. Your odds of dying in a plane crash are one in 7,178. Your odds of being struck by lightning are one in 134,906.
I’ll say it again: There is no voter-fraud crisis.
So how can the Republican Party, in state after state, enact measures that solve a problem that does not exist but that target black Americans, often with surgical precision?
Easy: Because in the fact-free universe of Fox News, Sinclair, Breitbart, the new Wall Street Journal, and the rest, it doesn’t matter that there is no voter-fraud crisis. They’ll just make one up. Remember, the president of the United States has alleged, without a scintilla of evidence, that between 3 and 5 million people voted illegally, a claim which every expert in the field has said is implausible to the point of absurdity.
And now, Kris Kobach, the nation’s leading liar when it comes to making up stories about voter fraud, is co-chairing a presidential commission on “election integrity.” Although the commission is supposed to have no preconceived notions, Trump has already said “There’s something. There always is.” And Kobach has already produced bogus evidence—already torn to shreds by experts—of such fraud in the state of New Hampshire.
The Trump commission isn’t just putting the fox in charge of the henhouse; it’s putting a particular fox, who has killed chickens for years, in charge of killing more of them.
Back when Kobach was secretary of state of Kansas, he crusaded against voter fraud, and suspended 36,000 Kansas voters (once again, disproportionately people of color) for not promptly proffering their birth certificates or passports as additional proof of citizenship.
How many cases of fraud did Kobach find? During his entire tenure: three. Yup, he filed a whopping three cases alleging voter fraud, none of which involved voter impersonation or non-citizen voting. In fact, all three appeared to be mistakes, in which senior citizens (all defendants are over age 60) voted in two states by accident.
So, if voter fraud is just a canard, what is the real reason for Republican-led “election integrity” measures?
Obviously, it’s to keep Democrats—especially non-white Democrats—from voting.
Consider, for example, North Carolina’s decision to cut back early voting, close certain polling spots, and institute strict voter-ID laws. All three just so happen to disproportionately affect less-affluent voters and people of color—constituencies that tend to vote for Democrats.
Now, are such rules explicitly racist? Of course not. They apply to everyone equally. But because of the disproportionate number of people of color living near the poverty line—itself, obviously, a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and institutionalized structural racism—they just so happen to hit black and brown folks harder. Again and again and again.
In the case of North Carolina, a federal court noted that “after years of preclearance and expansion of voting access, by 2013 African American registration and turnout rates had finally reached near-parity with white registration and turnout rates. African Americans were poised to act as a major electoral force.”
But then, said the court, the state “enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans… Although the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision, they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist.”
Indeed, in North Carolina, local officials crowed during the 2016 election that “African American Early Voting Is Down 8.5%.” Donald Trump carried the state by 177,509 votes.
Or how about Wisconsin, where the presidential electoral margin was 27,257? Wisconsin has approximately 300,000 registered voters who lack photo ID. How many of them were prevented from voting? We’ll never know.
Or how about Ohio, which throws you off the voting rolls if you miss a single federal election? In a case the Supreme Court will hear this term, Ohio has said that if people aren’t voting, it means that they might have moved and are voting elsewhere (PDF). There’s no evidence of that—just a guess.
Meanwhile, Ohio, in the name of a made-up problem, created a real one: millions of voters purged from the rolls who have to affirmatively opt in to get back on them. In 2014, for example, 4.6 million registered Ohioans didn’t vote, and had to respond to a single mailed notice to get back on the rolls (PDF). Guess who is least likely to receive and respond to government paperwork? Voters who—surprise!—tend to be less affluent and less white. What a coincidence!
The 2016 margin in Ohio: 446,821. Just 10 percent of the people thrown off the rolls after 2014.
Obviously—blindingly obviously—election integrity is a partisan issue because one party is predominantly white, aging, and becoming a demographic minority. If current trends continue—and even the slow-moving mass deportations of the Trump administration won’t change them—Texas will turn majority Democratic by 2024, and the presidential election will be no contest. The only way to forestall that is to tweak the system to keep some people—non-white people—from voting.
Now, is that racism, or political shrewdness? At a certain point, the distinction blurs. The fact is, the Republican Party is firing a barrage of weapons to keep people of color from voting. Even if that is ultimately for political reasons, it’s still racist as hell.
Two months ago, I went to watch the oral arguments in another voting case, Gill v. Whitford, which is about Wisconsin’s gerrymandered election districts. Inside, the talk was of how to measure the extent of partisan finagling, of the Constitution and of math.
But on the courthouse steps, everyone knew the score. The Democrats are pushing for more open voting, because that helps them. The Republicans are pushing for more closed voting, because that helps them.
And yet, the two sides weren’t equal. One side was pushing for more democracy, more access, and the other was pushing against it. One side had facts on its side, the other did not. Maybe both were self-interested, but only one side was telling the truth.
I think Republicans knew this, too. After Gill, several left-leaning advocacy groups held rallies on the steps of the Supreme Court with celebrity speakers and slogans about democracy. No one on the right showed up at all.