THE NEXT presidential election is 2½ years away but conservatives in several swing states are already trying to steal it. Nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was supposed to do away with segregationist poll taxes, literacy tests, and registration requirements, the effort to deny full participation in the political process by all Americans remains stunningly obvious.
Most notable is Ohio, where Democrat Barack Obama won reelection in 2012 by 166,000 votes out of 5.6 million cast. Republican Governor John Kasich in February signed a law cutting a week out of early voting and eliminating the state’s “Golden Week” to register and vote on the same day.
Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican who makes no bones that Ohio is “the most important swing state,” restricted voting even more by ending Sunday hours for early voting. Sunday hours are popular with many African-American churchgoers, who join “souls to the polls” caravans.
Husted claimed he wanted “fair and uniform” voting laws. But anyone who has scanned the long lines in swing states knows that uniform rural and suburban hours keep people from voting in densely populated cities.
Studies and news reports from several states documented a disproportionate use of early voting by African-Americans, including in Ohio. One minister told the Guardian newspaper that voting by families after church has become “our way of teaching our young people that you can’t just sit on the sidelines criticizing your leaders if you don’t vote.”
In Wisconsin, won twice by Obama, conservative Governor Scott Walker signed one law ending weekend early voting and another that allows election observers to come as close as three feet to registration and check-in tables. Walker’s office told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the new intimacy granted to observers ensures fairness. But such proximity could easily intimidate voters and encourage poll workers to slow down the processing of voters.
North Carolina, won by Obama in 2008 but by Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, cut early voting days, eliminated registration during early voting, and enacted tough ID standards. Those laws are being challenged in the courts.
Thankfully, not all of these restrictions pass muster, despite the Supreme Court’s gutting last year of key parts of the Voting Rights Act. This month a federal appeals court declared that Florida acted illegally before the 2012 election when it attempted to purge people suspected of being noncitizens from the voting rolls. Obama won Florida, but by only 73,000 votes out of 8.4 million cast.
That narrow margin shows that American democracy teeters on a razor’s edge. Obama whipped Romney in electoral votes, 332 to 206. But if just Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio had flipped to Romney, he would have been a mere 12 electoral votes behind. If he had won one more state, Romney might have become president.
The Republicans say the restrictions are intended to prevent fraud. But in a study this winter, Erin O’Brien and Keith Bentele, researchers at UMass Boston, found virtually no correlation between fraud and restrictions. Restrictions since 2006 were most likely enacted in Republican-dominated states with significant nonwhite and immigrant populations and where voting by low-income residents was increasing.
“The Republicans have made a clear choice after losing [the presidency] twice,” O’Brien said in an interview. “They could have changed their policies to expand their base and moderate their positions on wages and immigration to appeal to Latinos. Or they could make it simply harder for people to vote. The data says they chose the latter.”
That hauntingly brings back Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 reflection on the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He noted the backlash against the act in several Southern states where politicians won elections “with a witches’ brew of bigotry, prejudice, half-truths, and whole lies.” He concluded, “The racists have restructured old parties to cope with the emerging challenge.”
With their modern restrictions, the Republicans invite a direct connection to that legacy. America has made enough progress to twice vote for its first African-American president. Instead of giving the new America a more thoughtful, if not warm embrace, Republicans are coping with the emerging challenge by reaching out to strangle democracy.