THE BLOG

Why Voter Suppression Will Backfire

06/30/2013 10:44 pm ET | Updated Aug 30, 2013

Ever since the election of George W. Bush, the Republican strategy has been to keep a growing Democratic majority at bay by repressing the votes of people and groups likely to vote Democratic.

In 2000, when Al Gore beat George W. Bush, a corrupt Republican election official in Florida and, ultimately, a partisan Supreme Court made sure that Bush was seated as president. In 2004, deliberate voter suppression in Ohio and elsewhere made the difference for the GOP. But in 2008, a surge for Obama thwarted the Republican strategy; and in 2012 the dismal candidacy of Mitt Romney and high turnout of the Democratic base, coupled with failed voter suppression efforts in state after state, re-elected Obama.

So Republicans were left once again with the Supreme Court. This week's ruling in Shelby County v. Holder was such a cynical, naked and disingenuous power grab that it takes your breath away. The 5-4 Roberts majority argued that we don't need Justice Department pre-clearance any more because "our country has changed." But of course if things have changed in the Deep South, it's only because of the very pre-clearance protections that the Court struck down.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent just blew away the posturing of the majority decision.

It took the Texas Attorney General only two hours to re-file a voter ID plan that the Justice Department had disallowed in March as discriminatory. And more sneak attacks on the right to vote will follow -- tampering with voter rolls, abuse of ID requirements serving as a new poll tax, long lines in minority and working-class neighborhoods, shameless re-districting to dilute Hispanic and black voting strength -- you name it.

There are, however a couple of possible silver linings.

First, the ruling could so outrage blacks and Hispanics that the increase in voting turnout and the hostility to Republican tactics might more than make up for the Court's mischief. Another possibility is that civil rights groups will collect case after case of new voter suppression efforts, file new lawsuits, and maybe persuade at least one Justice that the High Court erred.

You want current data, Justice Roberts? Just wait.

What is extremely unlikely is Congressional action. Yet another piece of cynical disingenuousness on the part of the Court was to pitch the question back to Congress, knowing full well that the House will refuse to update the Voting Rights Act.

In sum: we will need to fight the civil rights revolution of the 1960s all over again, on the ground. In the long run, we have demographics on our side. A ton of damage, however, can be done in the short run, and this will take mobilization of a movement to fight for the right to vote and to have every vote count.

The other thing we have going for us is that Republicans keep demonstrating that they are on the wrong side of history.

With Hispanics and Asians as the fastest growing demographic groups, black turnout surpassing white turnout in some jurisdictions, and equal LGBT rights now the overwhelming majority position, the Republican Party just keeps alienating voters.

Voter suppression only underscores that reality. For two centuries, the American story has been about expansion of democracy. Today's Republicans would narrow it, abetted by the most nakedly partisan High Court ever.

Most Republicans are hostile to immigration reform. Though a decent bill was approved last week by the Senate (with only 14 Republicans voting to support it), the Republican House will try to either kill it or add poison pills. If comprehensive immigration does pass Congress, Hispanics and Asian Americans will appreciate that it is no thanks to the majority views of the Republican Party.

Likewise on LGBT rights, though some Republicans wish their colleagues would bow to reality as a 5-4 Supreme Court majority did last week, the social conservatives in the Party are just too strong. The GOP is on the wrong side of history here, too.

Absent gross mischief to hold down or dilute minority voting, key southern states are on track to shift from red to purple, (Texas, Georgia) and from purple to blue (Florida, North Carolina, Virginia).

Other states that used to be reliably Republican such as Colorado are becoming more heavily Democratic thanks both to shifting demographics and changing views on social issues.

So we have quite simply a race between demographic and ideological change and flat-out voter suppression.

In the 1960s, thanks to the civil rights movement, the liberal wing of a still moderate Republican Party, and Lyndon Johnson's legendary arm-twisting, the great civil rights acts of 1964, 1965 and 1968 passed Congress with a lot of Republican support. It was the Democrats who were split between northern progressives and diehard segregationist Dixiecrats.

Today, however, the obstructionists and vote suppressors are all Republicans. Ultimately, this will not be lost on a changing electorate. The forces of anti-democracy have won this round, but if the progressive movement gets itself organized, this victory for Republicans will be Pyrrhic.


Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos.