if you had to boil Republican electoral strategy down to just three elements, voter suppression, gerrymandering and fear-mongering white voters would do well enough. In her first installment of a two-parter at The New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew has a pretty good summary of the first two elements.
Drew’s review article draws from two books, “The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown” by Richard L. Hasen and “Democracy and Justice: Collected Writings,” edited by Desiree Ramos Reiner, Jim Lyons, Erik Opsal, Mikayla Terrell, and Lena Glaser.
Drew laments the horse-race obsession of the media and warns “growing dangers to a democratic election, ones that could decide the outcome, are being essentially overlooked. The three dangers are voting restrictions, redistricting, and loose rules on large amounts of money being spent to influence voters. In recent years, we’ve been moving further and further away from a truly democratic election system.” Further,
The considerable outrage in 2012 over the systematic effort in Republican-dominated states to prevent blacks, Hispanics, students, and the elderly from being able to vote–mainly aimed at limiting the votes of blacks and Hispanics–might have been expected to lead to a serious effort to fix the voting system. But quite the reverse occurred. In fact, in some of the major races in 2014, according to the highly respected Brennan Center for Justice, the difference in the number of votes between the victor and the loser closely mirrored the estimated number of people who had been deprived of the right to vote. And in the North Carolina Senate race, the number of people prevented from voting exceeded the margin between the loser and the winner.
But even if it cannot be shown that the suppression of votes made the difference in the outcome of an important race in a given state, that doesn’t exactly make voter suppression benign. Hundreds of thousands of people are being denied their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote. They have the misfortune of living in a state controlled by one party that wants to deprive the other party of as many votes as possible of the groups that tend heavily to support it. The ostensible rationale for such an effort–voter fraud–is itself a fraud.
Actually, hundreds of thousands is an understatement. Nationwide, the number runs into seven figures well before all states are tallied. Drew documents successful GOP voter suppression operations in several states. We’ll just share her report on one pivotal swing state:
In North Carolina shortly before the 2014 election, Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state House of Representatives and the Republican candidate for the US Senate against the incumbent Kay Hagan, rushed through the legislature one of the harshest voting laws in the country. It cut back the number of days for early voting, eliminated same-day registration, and prohibited people from voting outside their home precincts–all forms of voting heavily relied upon by blacks. Tillis defeated Hagan by 48,000 votes. One way to look at this is that in 2012, 700,000 people voted on those early voting days that were later cut; and 100,000 voters, almost one third of whom were black, had previously been able to register and vote on the same day. North Carolina hadn’t yet imposed a voter ID law in 2014, but one is in place for the next election.
Throw in the more than 600,000 disenfranchised voters of Texas, reported by Drew, and we are already well over a million voters unjustly denied ballot access — in just two states. The tally is in the same ballpark as those numbers in Florida, and will likely get worse with Bush or Rubio on the 2016 Republican ticket. As Drew reports, “In his book The Voting Wars, Richard Hasen, an expert on election law, writes, “Florida mainly taught political operatives the benefits of manipulating the rules…. Election law has become part of a political strategy.”
Drew chronicles the explosion of new voter i.d. laws in the wake of the Supreme Court decision eviscerating the Voting Rights Act, noting “forty new voter restrictions were introduced in seventeen states during the first few weeks of 2015 alone…as of late March of this year thirty-two such laws were in effect.”
It’s going to get worse. Drew adds, “Republicans are in total control of twenty-four states whereas the Democrats have total control of only seven. The lesson seems to be that once Republicans get total power at the state level, they find a way to rig the rules to keep the other side’s strongest constituencies from voting.” In addition,
Numerous Republican leaders understand that their party cannot win future national elections as long as it’s seen as hostile to minorities, but because of the very rightward cast of its primary and caucus voters and the early primaries in South Carolina and Florida (and even the possibility of a regional southern primary), someone seeking the Republican nomination now is not likely to support voting rights for blacks.
African Americans who are able to vote have had their ballot power diluted by Republican gerrymandering, as Drew explains:
…The most widely used way to limit the effect of black votes was to redraw voting districts. It used to be that black leaders worked with white legislators to guarantee that there would be enough blacks in a district that they could elect a black to represent them. More recently, the problem has become that in redrawing districts some states pack as many blacks as they can into a district, so they can reduce the total number of blacks elected to office and have the rest of their candidates run in safely white ones–which also reduces black political power.
As for reform prospects, “As of early April of this year, eighty-seven bills had been introduced around the country to reform redistricting practices. Twenty of them call for independent commissions; most of them try to cut back on gerrymandering. Two bipartisan bills have been introduced in the House that would encourage the establishing of independent commissions, or require the states to publish proposed redistricting plans online and give the citizens an opportunity to comment on them before they’re adopted.”
But none of these reforms are given much chance to succeed, given Republican majorities in both houses of congress. For that to change, the only hope is a broad Democratic victory in 2016. The alternative is further erosion of voting rights on an unprecedented scale. At some point it seems that voting rights must become more of a leading issue for Democrats. As Drew and others have warned, it’s not just about the domination of one political party over another. When specific groups are being locked out of the political process in massive and increasing numbers, democracy itself is very much at risk.