In a true democracy, citizens could depend on the courts to overturn partisan schemes to subvert the will of the governed. But here, too, Republicans are winning. In July, a three-judge panel struck down a challenge to North Carolina's redistricting, and a federal-court challenge of the filibuster was also recently struck down.
In fact, activist judges at the highest level are abetting the GOP's efforts to disenfranchise millions of Americans of color. Since the 1960s, Southern states with a history of voter suppression have had to submit proposed changes in elections law to a review by the federal government. The 2011 redistricting map drawn by the Republican state legislature in Texas was thrown out by a three-judge federal panel because it had been "enacted with discriminatory purpose." (Texas had gained four House seats because of population growth that was 90 percent minority. In the legislature's map, three of the four new districts were gerrymandered to favor Anglo Republicans.) Federal judges also struck down Texas' voter-ID law, the most restrictive in the nation, for imposing "unforgiving burdens" on "racial minorities . . . disproportionately likely to live in poverty."
But this summer, the Supreme Court not only vacated these Texas rulings, it gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, ending federal "preclearance" of election law in the old Confederacy. Texas lawmakers continue to wrangle over redistricting. But the state's voter-ID law went into effect this October. Those without state-issued photo ID – gun permits are valid, college IDs are not – can seek out a special voting card, but must first pay a de facto poll tax of $22 to secure a birth certificate and then travel as far as 250 miles to apply at a state motor-vehicle office. As many as 1.4 million Texas voters are currently barred from polls because they lack the required identification. At last count, the state had issued exactly 41 special voter-ID cards.
Such trickery has come to define the GOP's approach to federal elections where Republicans can no longer prevail in a fair fight. Strict voter-ID laws have now been passed in more than a dozen states, most recently North Carolina. There, a county-level Republican Party Executive Committee member named Don Yelton recently committed a gaffe of truth-telling, admitting on national television that the driving purpose of the state's voter-ID law is to "kick the Democrats in the butt." If the law disenfranchises college students without photo IDs or "hurts a bunch of lazy blacks," Yelton said, "so be it."
The bad news is that the Republican death grip on our political process could get even worse. The midterm electorate tends to be older and whiter than in presidential years; no one should be shocked to see the GOP expand its advantage in the House in 2014, or even make a run at the Senate. The good news is that the future is more powerful than Republican dirty tricks. The GOP may have postponed its day of reckoning at the hands of a younger, browner, queerer electorate – "They're holding back the tides," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics – but sooner or later, they're going to get swamped.
This story is from the November 21st, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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