For some years, the Republican party has tried to convince Americans that they have put their ugly legacy on issues of race behind them, that Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" and Willie Horton have no relationship to the GOP of today. They call themselves the "party of Lincoln," hoping people will forget that the Republican and Democratic parties were very different in 1864 than they are today. (Consider: If the likes of John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and the rest of the leading lights of the GOP had been alive 150 years ago, which side would they have been on? The answer seems pretty obvious.) Sometimes, they may even go as far as the National Review did recently, publishing an unintentionally hilarious cover article claiming that Republicans are the real civil-rights heroes, because the Democratic party was once home to white Southern segregationists, so there! Never mind that those folks, like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, eventually found their rightful home in the Republican party, as part of the realignment process that gave us the parties of today.
The protestations would be a little more convincing if every election—every election, without fail—didn't see Republicans searching for new ways to exploit white racial animus and, more importantly, keep minorities from voting. This year's election will be no different; Republicans are working harder than ever to make sure that if you're not their kind of person, you will find voting as difficult as possible. That doesn't mean that deep in their hearts Republicans are racists. It isn't about hate. It's about power.
This isn't anything new. The history of voting in America is one of vicious battles over who would be able to cast ballots, battles that go well beyond the passage of the 15th and 19th Amendments, which extended voting rights to blacks and women, respectively. For decades, dozens of states had "pauper exclusions" on their books preventing poor people from voting. In some cases that meant that only property owners were allowed to vote; in other cases, going on any form of public assistance meant giving up your franchise. Incredibly, these laws were not finally repealed in most places until the 1960s. As Alexander Keyssar detailed in The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, classes of people with power have always sought to restrict the ability of those without power to vote:
They did so both to defend their own interests and because their beliefs and prejudices led them to view others as something less than responsible or worthy citizens. Most men did not want to enfranchise women until the twentieth century; most whites did not want to enfranchise blacks or other racial minorities in their own states; the native-born often were resistant to granting suffrage to immigrants; the wealthy at times sought to deny political citizenship to the poor; established community residents preferred to fence out new arrivals. There is nothing peculiarly American or particularly surprising about these patterns; those who possess political power commonly are reluctant to share it, and they have easily developed or embraced ideas that justify and legitimize that reluctance.
At various times in their histories, both political parties have sought partisan advantage in keeping certain people from the polls. But it has been some time since the Democratic party had a means by which to exclude whole classes of people from voting. The most reliable Republican voters today are groups like older white men. Even the most creative legislator would have a tough time coming up with some way to take away their voting rights.
But the reliably Democratic groups—blacks, Hispanics, poor people, young people—are easier to go after. You don't have to stop all of them from voting, just enough to make a difference. And few things work better than voter ID laws, since those who don't have such an ID are so much more likely to be the kind of people who vote Democratic. The fact that people impersonating other people at the polls is so rare as to be almost non-existent matters not at all. Write a voter ID law, and the cruder methods of keeping minorities from voting become less necessary. You don't have to spend as much time distributing flyers in black neighborhoods threatening people with prosecution if they go to the wrong polling place, or mailing notices to voters claiming that if they have any unpaid parking tickets they won't be allowed to vote, or posting signs around the neighborhood saying that the election has been moved to Wednesday.
All those things have happened may times before. But after their success in taking control of state legislatures in 2010, Republicans decided that kind of thing was for amateurs. You don't need election day shenanigans if you've passed a law disenfranchising the right people. Minorities may be at the core of these efforts, but it isn't just about them. Young people, college students, ex-felons, anyone who might be more likely to vote Democratic has been targeted by eager Republican legislators elected in the 2010 sweep. A dozen states with Republican legislatures have erected new barriers to voting since 2010. These barriers include voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting and same-day registration, and laws barring all ex-felons from voting. And no state's Republicans have moved as aggressively as Florida, which has a bit of a history with this sort of thing.
You may have forgotten it by now, but the razor-thin margin of the 2000 presidential race there had its roots well before election day, when governor Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris assembled a list of people who were allegedly ex-felons and should therefore lose their voting rights. It turned out that thousands of them weren't ex-felons at all, but just had names that resembled someone who had committed a felony. But too bad – they lost the right to vote anyway. In the last few years, Florida has passed an ID law, and passed a law imposing absurdly onerous requirements on those who register voters (voter registration is always a part of liberal and Democratic organizing campaigns). They also restricted early voting, most importantly by eliminating early voting on the Sunday before the election. Why that Sunday? Well, many black churches were organizing "Souls to the Polls" voting drives after church on that day. The Republicans solved that problem. And most recently, the government of Republican governor Rick Scott told local boards of elections to purge tens of thousands of people from the voter rolls, on the grounds that they might not be citizens. Many Florida citizens have already gotten threatening letters from the government, telling them they had 30 days to prove their citizenship or lose the right to vote.
Many of these plainly partisan moves are under legal challenge, but our system unfortunately allows much of what Republicans are trying to do. For instance, when the 2000 election controversy revealed the miasma of corruption and incompetence that was the Florida election system, many people were amazed that the Secretary of State, the person in charge of running the election, could be allowed to serve as state co-chair of one of the competing presidential campaigns. The idea that Bush co-chair Katherine Harris was an objective arbiter of election rules and processes was beyond absurd; it was like going to a Yankees-Red Sox game and learning that the home-plate umpire was also the Yankees' batting coach. But that's perfectly fine in America; you might remember that four years later, the Secretary of State in Ohio, Ken Blackwell (the state co-chair for the Bush-Cheney campaign) responded to a successful Democratic registration campaign by issuing a decree that any registration form not printed on heavy card stock would be declared invalid (his order was overturned by a court). And just recently the Arizona Secretary of State, Ken Bennett, declared that he might not allow Barack Obama on the state's ballot, since he wasn't convinced Obama was actually born in the United States. Bennett, who eventually backed off his birtherism, is–you guessed it–the state co-chair of the Romney campaign.
Few things are more absurd than to hear Republicans claim that in enacting restrictive voting laws, they are motivated not a whit by partisanship, but only by their deep and abiding concern for the integrity of the ballot. The Republicans who swept into office at all levels in 2010 had a policy agenda, to do things like restrict reproductive rights, roll back environmental and consumer regulations, and cut taxes. But their political agenda, designed to increase the chances that they will retain power, got nearly as much of their attention. And few things can more effectively ensure that you'll retain power than making it harder for the wrong kind of people to vote.