What’s more important: ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote has the opportunity to do so, or making sure that no one who is not eligible to vote does so? If you’re a Democrat, you’re significantly more likely to say the former, while Republicans are much more likely to say the latter. But this is more than just one of many partisan differences of opinion, because posing the question this way is a false dichotomy.
In 2016 there were 4 confirmed cases of attempted voter fraud (that is, someone attempting to vote twice or filling out an absentee ballot for someone else). Not 4 million, as President Donald Trump has falsely claimed on many occasions, or 400,000 (which is actually the number of voters denied or deterred from voting by voter ID laws in just six states), or 4,000. Four individual cases, total (all, incidentally, Republicans). To put that into perspective, Americans are as likely to commit voter fraud as they are to contract bubonic plague. In contrast, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of citizens were prevented from voting in 2016 by new voter ID laws, disproportionately African Americans and other minorities.
Many of these new laws have come into effect because of a recent major change to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the landmark pieces of Civil Rights legislation that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. championed and many civil rights activists and ordinary citizens fought (and sometimes died) to promote. (If you’re unfamiliar with this struggle, I suggest watching Ava Duvernay’s excellent movie Selma on the campaign that led to passage of the Act).
The Voting Rights Act was put in place to eliminate systematic, widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation and discrimination. Although the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution makes it illegal to deny someone the right to vote based on race (thus ending attempts to keep ex-slaves and other black Americans from voting), by the mid-20th century, local and state governments had developed various ways to keep black citizens from voting – literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses – while pretending that these regulations were race-neutral.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited governments from enacting such laws and policies. In addition to outlawing voting tests, the Act also stipulated that certain parts of the country, particularly those places that had been using these tests as of 1964, could not change their election laws again without gaining prior approval – basically, these areas were identified as bad actors who were likely to discriminate again if given the chance. This later provision of the Act was initially authorized for five years, and had been renewed in five year intervals until 2013. In that year, Shelby County, Alabama successfully sued, (winning a 5-4 Supreme Court Ruling), to have this provision of the Voting Rights Act struck down as unconstitutional.
2016 was thus the first Presidential election year since the Voting Rights Act was weakened (or “gutted,” as many voting rights advocates have said). After the Shelby decision, 17 states enacted new voter restrictions; over half of those states were those previously covered by the provisions struck down in the Court ruling, and (with the exception of Rhode Island ) all had Republican-controlled state legislatures. African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans have been hardest hit by these laws. Other states purged millions of registrations from voting rolls (another Jim Crow era tactic), such as in Georgia under recent Secretary of State (and current Republican candidate for Governor Brian Kemp). And this is before we even consider the effects of felon disenfranchisement, another Jim Crow holdover initially designed to suppress black voters and currently keeping millions of people (disproportionately black and Latino) from voting, often even after their sentences are over.
In short, voter ID laws and other forms of voter restrictions are Republican tactics to suppress minority Democratic voters.
Wait, let me repeat that: voter ID laws and other forms of voter restrictions are Republican tactics to suppress minority Democratic voters.
I do not mean that all Republicans want to suppress minority votes. On the contrary, nearly half of Republicans believe that millions illegally voted in the 2016 election (instead of the actual number, which, remember, is 4…no, wait, I’m wrong; those 4 were caught, so the actual number is likely zero). This is not surprising given the rhetoric about illegal voters espoused by their leaders, especially President Trump.
Nor do I mean that the arguments in favor of voter ID requirements are illogical – although they sometimes are, as demonstrated by the Georgia exact match law that would restrict voters based on typos or variations in punctuation, or the North Dakota requirement that voters have IDs with street addresses in a state where many voters are Native Americans who live on reservations that don’t have street addresses.
I do mean that these arguments for voter ID laws are disingenuous, as were the literacy tests and other restrictions placed on black voters during the Jim Crow era. Even the members of President Trump’s voter fraud commission, made up of individuals inclined to believe and back up the President’s claims, failed to find evidence of widespread voter fraud. Meanwhile, the data clearly shows the racial disparities in voter ID laws used to combat this . Occasionally, Republican operatives like NC strategist Carter Wrenn or Republican-led state governments have publicly admitted that voter suppression is a “great idea” for Republicans or these laws are intentionally biased to hamper minority Democratic voters.
The popular conventions of political discourse in this country dictate that I attempt to argue that this is a problem that both parties have helped create. I could point toward commenters like Michael Thielen, Executive Director of the Republican National Lawyers Association , who argues that Democrats have put restrictive policies in place to disenfranchise active duty military personnel (who lean Republican in their votes), or Jeff Weaver, Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign manager, who argues that New York state’s party registration rules effectively prevent many independents (who usually lean Democratic in the state) from participating in New York’s Democratic primaries.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let me be clear: voter ID laws and other forms of voter restrictions are Republican tactics to suppress minority Democratic voters. In researching this, I attempted to find an example from the past 25 years in which a Democrat has won a national or statewide election by suppressing votes among a particular group of people, but so far I’ve come up blank. (The closest I’ve come so far is the argument that Al Gore, by attempting to authorize recounts in Democratic-heavy counties in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, implicitly endorsed not counting discarded ballots in Republican heavy areas of the state. Even this is a stretch, though).
In contrast, several recent and current examples exist of voter suppression being potentially decisive in Republican-won elections across the country. Granted, voter suppression likely didn’t swing the 2016 presidential election, but it could do so in 2020. And it will almost definitely deny many Americans, particularly minority voters, rights that were won through decades of struggle and sacrifice. Yet, as long as the Republican Party is willing to use myths and narratives such as voter fraud and anti-religious bias to win elections and push its agenda, and as long as the news media refuses to acknowledge the scope and severity of these tactics, then, hey, it’s all politics, right?