Voting Rights Act Decision Poses a Crucial Test for Republicans

The GOP can use the court’s decision to double down on its white, aging base, writes Jamelle Bouie—or seize it as a new opportunity for outreach to minority voters.

If you’ve read a magazine at any point in the last decade, then you’ve probably heard of the Stanford marshmallow test. A young child is placed at a table with a marshmallow and told that she can eat it now or wait a while and get an even better treat. The experiment is supposed to measure a child’s capacity for delayed gratification. The longer she can wait, the more likely it is she has good impulse control, and that is associated with better life outcomes, as measured by health and educational attainment.

In overturning Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act—which sets down a formula for identifying which state and local governments have to preclear changes to voting law with the federal government—the Supreme Court has all but placed a huge marshmallow in front of the Republican Party. But instead of a sugary treat, it’s an opportunity to pursue harsh new restrictions on voting—the kinds of policies that would have been blocked under the Voting Rights Act before the court’s ruling.

Over the last three years Republicans throughout the country have launched aggressive attacks on voting rights and access to the ballot, often under the guise of voter integrity (despite the nonthreat of voter fraud). In North Carolina, Republicans have proposed bills that would cut early voting, require a narrow range of identification cards to vote (excluding student IDs, for instance), and impose lifetime disenfranchisement for felons. Likewise, in Virginia, Republican legislators have proposed a strict new voter-ID law that could disenfranchise the nearly 900,000 residents who lack the required identification. The same goes for a Mississippi bill that could keep up to 40,000 people from the polls.

Prior to this ruling, these laws would have had to pass federal preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. That’s no longer the case. The path is now clear to pass laws that would keep hundreds of thousands of people from voting, of whom a disproportionate number are African-American.

This isn’t an accident. In places like Virginia, keeping blacks, Latinos, and other groups from the polls gives a significant advantage to Republican candidates, given the groups’ high support for Democrats. Without high African-American turnout, Barack Obama couldn’t have won Virginia last year, which would have jeopardized his bid for reelection. And on a smaller scale, high black turnout is key to Democratic odds in midterm and gubernatorial elections. Terry McAuliffe, for instance, can’t win the governor’s mansion without a strong turnout among black voters. The voter-ID laws proposed by Republicans tilt the playing field in their favor—which is why they’re on the table in the first place.

But the Republican Party doesn’t have to reach for that marshmallow. It has another choice: It can wait. Indeed, it can work to patch the new hole in the Voting Rights Act and restore it to its former glory. No, this doesn’t offer an immediate electorate advantage. What it does do, however, is show minority voters that Republicans care about both their interests and their fundamental rights. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this message.

The GOP is facing a demographic crunch. Its base of older whites is shrinking, while core Democratic constituencies—African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and young people—are growing. A Republican Party that takes the lead in writing a new Voting Rights Act is a Republican Party that can repair its damage with minorities and lay a new foundation for growth. In the long term, rejecting the temptation of new voter restrictions and recommitting to the legacy of the civil-rights movement is a recipe for success. Taking the easy road, by contrast, ties Republicans even more tightly to their aging Southern base and further alienates nonwhite voters.

In purely strategic terms—setting aside the moral travesty of embracing racialized voter restrictions—that would be a terrible outcome for the GOP. If the black community continues to turn out at high rates (in defiance of Republicans, as we saw last year) and continues to vote 20 to 1 for Democrats, Republicans have a much harder time winning states like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in presidential elections. And because these laws would also disproportionately harm Latinos, Republicans risk undoing any goodwill they build by passing immigration reform (assuming it happens).

Some Republicans seem to understand the importance of rejecting the temptation presented by John Roberts and his fellow conservatives on the bench. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for example, has expressed his support for a new Voting Rights Act, citing his time visiting Selma, Alabama, with Rep. John Lewis: “I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside ... and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.”

Others have shown less foresight. Just a few hours after the court’s decision, Texas’s Republican attorney general announced that he would activate the state’s controversial voter-identification law, which was previously blocked by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and which the Obama administration says would discriminate against low-income and minority voters. North Carolina Republicans are also moving ahead with their voter-ID law, which reduces early voting, eliminates Sunday voting, and bars same-day voter registration—all measures disproportionately utilized by black voters.

The same goes for Mississippi, which is now pushing forward with its voter-ID bill. And in Congress, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has affirmed the court’s decision, telling reporters that Section 4 is no longer necessary in light of the “tremendous progress” his state has made in advancing voter rights. Last year a federal judge blocked South Carolina’s voter-ID law for the 2012 elections, citing its disproportionate effect on voters of color.

Republicans have an important choice to make. They can reach for the marshmallow and secure short-term gain at the cost of their long-term prospects, or they can wait, seize this new opportunity for outreach, and in doing so move their party into line with America’s more diverse future.