Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Voter ID laws show how GOP has tried to undermine democracy

RALEIGH, NC - MARCH 15: North Carolina State University students wait in line to vote in the primaries at Pullen Community Center on March 15, 2016 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The North Carolina primaries is the state's first use of the voter ID law, which excludes student ID cards. Wake County was among the highest use of provisional ballots, where those voters had home addresses on or near campuses. The Board of Elections will review voter's reasonable impediment form submitted with their provisional ballots to determine if their vote counts. The state's voter ID law is still being argued in federal court. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images )
Sara D. Davis/Getty Images
North Carolina State University students waited in line to vote on March 15, 2016.

In the current media atmosphere — which can best be described as “What will Donald Trump do next?” — an important story that goes a long way toward explaining Trump’s rise to prominence has fallen through the cracks.

Last week, a federal court struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law, which had been one of the most onerous in the nation. That decision came in the midst of several other court decisions to do away with similar voter ID laws in Texas, Wisconsin, Kansas, and North Dakota.

But what is so striking about the North Carolina case is that it clearly exposes the racially tinged impetus for passing voter ID laws in the first place.

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Over the past several years, Republican lawmakers across the nation have pushed for legislation imposing strict requirements on voters. This has included everything from demanding photo identification to restrictions on early voting and the closing of polling stations. Every time these laws are passed, Republicans claim that they are motivated by a desire to prevent voter fraud. But this argument is a lie. One study found that, since 2000, there have been only 31 cases of voter impersonation out of more than 1 billion votes cast. This makes voter fraud as rare as reports of alien abduction.

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The federal court’s decision on the North Carolina voting law proves what opponents of these statutes have been saying for years — that the rationale for these laws is to prevent black people, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, from exercising their franchise.

The court found in North Carolina that state lawmakers requested specific data on white and black voting patterns — and then drafted legislation specifically crafted to limit black voting.

For example, the data requested, said the court, “showed that African Americans disproportionately lacked the most common kind of photo ID, those issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles.”

So what did North Carolina Republicans do? They “amended the bill to exclude many of the alternative photo IDs used by African Americans” and “retained only the kinds of IDs that white North Carolinians were more likely to possess.”

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With data that showed “African Americans disproportionately used the first seven days of early voting” the legislature “amended the bill to eliminate the first week of early voting.”

Indeed, North Carolina lawmakers were so brazen in their discriminatory intent that, in trying to justify the elimination of early Sunday voting, the state forthrightly stated that “[c]ounties with Sunday voting in 2014 were disproportionately black” and “disproportionately Democratic.”

This is “as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times,” said the court. “The state’s very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race — specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise.”

In all, concluded the court, the state “enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans” — and this was done with “surgical precision.”

In case you think this is merely an aberration, over the past week federal courts found that Republican-dominated legislatures in other states were following the same path as North Carolina.

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“The legislature’s immediate goal was to achieve a partisan objective, but the means of achieving that objective was to suppress the reliably Democratic vote of Milwaukee’s African Americans,” determined the federal court that overturned Wisconsin’s voter ID law.

In Texas, federal judges on the Fifth Circuit (one of the most conservative federal appeals courts in the country) concluded that the state’s voting law discriminates against minority voters.

Earlier this week, a North Dakota voter ID law was blocked after a federal judge concluded that voter fraud in the state is “virtually non-existent” and that the law unfairly burdens Native American voters, a group that disproportionately lacks photo identification. Another federal decision in Kansas blocked a state law that sought to limit voting to those who could provide “proof of citizenship.”

The evidence could not be clearer from these five cases: The intention of Republican lawmakers in passing stricter voting requirements has been to limit the ability of minority Americans to vote.

The GOP’s claims of voter fraud are a canard — and Republicans are fully aware of that fact. All of this, in a roundabout way, explains the rise of Donald Trump. What these voter ID laws show — and there are countless other examples to prove the point — is that Republican leaders have so steadily eroded respect for basic Democratic norms that the emergence of Trump was practically inevitable.

The same party that is deceitful on voter ID laws and that, even in court filings, does not try to hide the discriminatory intent of these statutes, is the same party that has embraced a leader who calls immigrants “rapists” and seeks to impose a religious test on Muslim immigrants. Of course, this is the same party that has repeatedly winked and nodded at those who question the president’s birthplace and has used the debt limit as political blackmail. Republicans have embraced the notion that Obamacare imposes “death panels” and argued without evidence that Democrats want to repeal the Second Amendment. I could go on with these examples. But anyone surprised that Republicans have embraced a leader so far outside modern American tradition has simply not been paying attention to the evolution of the Republican Party over the past several years.

The thing about violating these norms and using political rhetoric that seeks to delegitimize your political opponents is that it’s a bit like eating potato chips. It’s hard to eat just one. And once you start down this road — once you, for example, unabashedly try to use the law to undermine the basic voting rights of your fellow citizens, it’s a slippery slope to even worse offenses. It may not be a direct line between voter ID laws and Trump, but the road to perdition rarely takes a linear route.

Reversing course is pretty hard, especially when, as was the case in 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, it brings short-term political success.

That the GOP’s strategy of pushing the envelope is now blowing up in their face with Trump is nothing if not just deserts. But it’s also a reminder of how difficult it will be to clean up the damage that has been done.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.