The Larger Context of Restrictions On Voting

Yesterday the Supreme Court issued an order overruling an appeals court decision about a series of voting restrictions passed last year by the state of North Carolina, which will allow the restrictions to remain in place for this year's election, until the case is ultimately heard by the Court. And in a happy coincidence, on the very same day, the Government Accountability Office released a report finding that voter ID requirements reduce turnout among minorities and young people, precisely those more-Democratic voting groups the requirements are meant to hinder. There's a context in which to view the battle over voter restrictions that goes beyond whether Republicans are a bunch of meanies, and it has to do with the things parties can change easily and the things they can't.

I'll explain exactly what I mean in a moment, but first, the law at issue was passed just weeks after the Supreme Court's conservative majority gutted the Voting Rights Act, allowing North Carolina and other states to change their voting laws without the Justice Department preclearance that had been required since the 1960s. The N.C. law was basically a grab-bag of everything the Republican legislature and governor could come up with to make voting more difficult and inconvenient, particularly for those groups more likely to vote for Democrats. It included an ID requirement, of course, but also shortened the early voting period, eliminated "pre-registration" (under which 16 and 17-year-olds who would be 18 by election day could register before their birthdays), repealed same-day registration, and mandated that any voter who cast a ballot at the wrong precinct would have their vote tossed in the trash. Every provision was aimed directly at minority voters, young voters, or both.

As I've argued before, these kinds of restrictions are almost certainly all going to be upheld by the Supreme Court, because Anthony Kennedy, for all his pleasing evolution on gay rights, is firmly in the conservative camp when it comes to voting rights. That means there will be five votes in favor of almost any hurdle to voting that a GOP-controlled state can devise.

Making voting as difficult and cumbersome as possible for the wrong kind of people is a longstanding conservative project, but it has taken on a particular urgency for the right in recent years, which helps explain why 22 states have passed voting restrictions just since 2010 (and why stuff like this keeps happening). Republicans are doing it because they can, but also because they believe they must.

Both parties approach every election with a set of advantages and disadvantages, some of which are open to change in the short term and some of which aren't. The last couple of presidential elections, the Democrats had a more capable candidate than the Republicans did; that could be reversed next time or the time after that. The Democrats have policy positions that are on the whole significantly more popular than those of the Republicans, particularly on things like the minimum wage, taxes, and Social Security. While it would be possible for the GOP to change its positions on those issues, it's a slow process (as they're now seeing on gay rights), and sometimes it's impossible.

On the other hand, Republicans have a geographic advantage we've discussed before, with their voters spread more efficiently throughout the country, enabling them to keep a grip on a House majority even when more Americans vote for Democratic congressional candidates, as they did in 2012. Their dominance in rural states helps them stay competitive in the undemocratic Senate, where 38 million Californians elect two Democrats, and 600,000 Wyomingers counter with their two Republicans.

There isn't much Democrats can do about that weight sitting in the right side of the scale, but they have their own structural advantage in the fact that their coalition is a diverse one, including some of the fastest-growing segments of the population, while the Republicans are stuck with a constituency fated to shrink as a proportion of the population. In other words, the GOP's essential disadvantages lie in the interplay between what they believe and who they are.

One way to make up for those disadvantages is by making changes to the rules to tilt things a little bit back in your favor. Making it harder for some of the other side's constituencies to vote won't transform elections in and of itself—and it will often spur a reaction from Democrats as they redouble their GOTV efforts—but it can give that boost of a point or two that in the right circumstances can turn defeat into victory.

Republicans, of course, claim that all these voting restrictions have no partisan intent whatsoever—that they're just about stopping fraud and maintaining the integrity of the system. Not a single person in either party genuinely believes that's true (even if Republicans do believe that Democrats try to steal every election, they know that things like ID requirements and shortening early voting don't touch the biggest locus of actual voter fraud, which is absentee ballots). If it didn't help Republicans overcome their disadvantages, at least on the margins, you can bet they wouldn't be pursuing so many voting restrictions with such fervor. 

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