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How Conservative Failure on Race Led to Voter ID Laws

How Conservative Failure on Race Led to Voter ID Laws

Voter ID laws like North Carolina’s “monster law” have very little to do with “voter fraud,” and everything to do with conservative failure.

North Carolina Republican consultant Carter Wrenn plainly spelled it out: if African-Americans voted Republican, voter ID laws like his states “monster law” wouldn’t have happened. “Look,” Wrenn told the Washington Post, “if African-Americans voted overwhelmingly Republican, they would have kept early voting right where it was.” Wrenn was defending North Carolina’s voter ID law against charges of racism. It wasn’t about discriminating against African-Americans, he said, but about protecting the GOP’s majority. Black voters got caught in the middle, “because they vote Democrat.”

In other words, fraud had nothing to do with it. It’s practically nonexistent. A recent study found just 10 cases of the kind of voter fraud that voter ID is supposed to prevent, out of 146 million registered voters; that’s 0.0000068 percent. So, why do 40 percent of Republicans think that the nonexistent community organization group ACORN will rig the election for Hillary Clinton?

Wrenn’s feeble attempt to deflect charges of racism implies that the law was necessary because of African-Americans’ failure to vote Republican. Nonetheless, the charge should stick. Voter ID laws like North Carolina’s are deeply rooted in conservative’s willingness to exploit the racial fears and resentments of their base for political gain, and their failure to see the limits of that strategy and adapt accordingly.

The Washington Post article in which Wrenn was quoted, detailed how North Carolina Republicans crafted a law the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals described as designed to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Last week, the Supreme Court rejected governor Pat McCrory’s request to reinstate parts of the law, which the 4th Circuit court struck down in July. (It’s been a rough summer for Republicans’ voter suppression efforts. Courts have issued major decisions blocking GOP-backed voting restrictions in five different states: North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, Texas, and Michigan.)

Civil rights groups sued to block the law. Documents released under court order, as a result, show that North Carolina Republicans began stitching together the state’s “monster law” with pointed requests to the state’s election board.

  • One staffer for the Republican-controlled state legislature asked in January 2012, “Is there any way to get a breakdown of the 2008 voter turnout, by race (white and black) and type of vote (early and Election Day)?”
  • A GOP lawmaker asked in March 2013, “Is there no category for ‘Hispanic’ voter?”, after requesting a range of data, including the number of voters who cast ballots outside their precinct.
  • In April 2013, a top aide to the Republican Hous Speaker requested, “a breakdown, by race, of those registered voters in your database that do not have a driver’s license number.”

A few months later, the North Carolina legislature became the political equivalent of a mad scientist’s laboratory, where white lawmakers stitched together voting restrictions tested by Republicans in other states, to create a Frankenstein’s monster of a voting law that:

  • cut out a week of early voting,
  • eliminated out-of-precinct voting, and
  • required voters to show specific types of photo ID.

The proof, as the saying goes, is in the pudding. Republicans can say that laws like North Carolina’s aren’t racist, but the results say otherwise. Wrenn may suggest that such laws are necessary because black voters failed to “wise-up” and vote Republican, but the tactic points to a clear failure on the part of North Carolina Republicans, and conservatives in general .

Having failed to win through persuasion the support of African-American voters, Latino voters, etc., Republicans in North Carolina and elsewhere seek instead to simply prevent as many minorities as possible from voting.

As I’ve written before, Republicans make the same mistake many other all-white or predominantly white organizations make when it comes to attracting minorities. They ask the wrong question. That is, they ask the easier question: Why don’t more of “them” join us? It’s an easier question, because it doesn’t require any self-examination or accountability on the part of whoever’s asking. The impetus is on “them” to come to their senses and join “us.” If they haven’t yet, then they just don’t know what’s good for them. (In which case, can they be trusted with anything as important as voting?)

Republicans, and other such organizations, fail to ask the more difficult question: How have we failed to address their concerns so that “they” will naturally want to join “us”? It’s not a particularly hard question to answer. African-American voters, particularly young voters, have been more vocal than ever about concerns like criminal justice reform, and countering structural and institutional racism. It’s harder, because it requires whoever’s asking to take some accountability for their current homogenous state, and make changes necessary to do something about it.

For Republicans, answering the second question means figuring out how to address those concerns effectively, in the context of their conservative values. Instead, Republicans have been engaged in doing the exact opposite. The “Southern Strategy” was a first step on the GOP’s long journey away from being “ the Party of Lincoln,” and Lee Atwater’s later refinement of it charted the course contemporary conservatism policies and rhetoric.

There’s a discussion to be had about gerrymandering here, too. A study of Congress after the 2012 election showed that the majority of House Republicans came from overwhelmingly white, “safe” GOP districts. They didn’t need to speak to minority groups to ensure re-election. After the 2012 election — in which Republicans held on to they majority, even though Democrats won more votes — 80 percent of House Republicans represented districts more heavily white than the national average.

By contrast, 64 percent of House Democrats represented ethnically diverse districts, where they needed to win the support of various minority groups to secure re-election. Democrats were more experienced and comfortable communicating with diverse constituencies. No one had to teach Democrats how to talk to white voters either, because is always a political necessity. Republicans, on the other hand, aren’t used to talking to — or listening to —minority voters. And it shows.

Republicans painted themselves into a corner, hobbling their ability to address the concerns of non-white voters whose numbers and importance are on the rise. Democrats are positioned to have an advantage in a more divers electorate. With voter ID laws designed keep African-Americans and Latinos from the polls, Republicans are treading water and trying to push back the tide of demographic change, instead of learning how to swim with it.

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