Not long after losing its second presidential election to Barack Obama, the GOP, so the story goes, operated on itself. Like a lung-cancer patient declaring that it’s time to quit smoking, the Republican National Committee declared in a 2013 “autopsy” report that “the Republican Party must be committed to building a lasting relationship within the African-American community year-round, based on mutual respect and with a spirit of caring.”
A few months later, Republicans cheered a Supreme Court decision that maimed the Voting Rights Act. Three years after that — in the wake of more than a dozen states pushing through fresh new laws to make it more difficult for African-American and Hispanic people to vote — the party crossed another Rubicon by nominating Donald Trump for president, a birther with an unquestioned record of racial discrimination and bigoted rhetoric. This was not so much hypocritical as it was suicidal.
“An aging, nearly 90 percent white GOP cannot carry its candidates to electoral victory on a platform that revels in the consequences of unvarnished racism — such as Charlottesville — or the terror of family separation and placing babies in cages,” Emory University professor Carol Anderson tells Rolling Stone. How does one maintain such a model for electoral success in a browning America? For those Republicans who indulge in it or silently benefit from it, voter suppression provides the leeway.
In her new book, One Person, No Vote, Anderson argues that the Republican Party’s inability, and unwillingness, to reform its policies have led inexorably to silencing those who oppose racism as public policy. The unconscionable seizure of Hispanic-Americans’ passports along the Texas-Mexico border and the targeting of college students for invalidation in New Hampshire and Wisconsin both work toward the same goal. Felony disenfranchisement has affected one of every 13 black adults, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project. The Trump administration’s desire to add a citizenship question to the census could dramatically cut the political power of Hispanic communities. And in North Carolina, even after a voter-ID law designed to discriminate “with almost surgical precision” was struck down in 2016, heavily gerrymandered (and unconstitutional) congressional districts aimed at helping Republicans were used in primaries this year to nominate several candidates across the state. If this all evokes the poll taxes and literacy tests of America’s shameful past, it should. “Voter suppression is as toxic to democracy as old-school Jim Crow disenfranchisement,” says Anderson.
There is fear underlying this strategy, however. Trump regularly defecates upon political norms, but he and the party that empowers him share a commonality. All too many Republicans excuse his abuses as they commit their own, suppressing votes and embracing the very last strands dangling off the white-nationalist fringe. Much like a white person saying the word “nigger” — with that hard “r” — aloud in mixed company, they are free to do so as long as they expect consequences.
Obama won re-election with only 39 percent of the white vote, but this midterm election presents a particularly distressing tipping point for Republicans. The pool of Democratic candidates is the most diverse in the history of American politics. Three black candidates — Ben Jealous, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum — are nominated for governor, more than have ever been elected in American history. The Republican urgency to suppress our votes is so conspicuous because it is all they have left. They can’t gerrymander the nation.
Also, as diligently as Republicans — yes, pretty much just them — have worked to limit the franchise, the momentum has swung both ways. “We’ve seen some politicians in certain states try to make it harder for people to register and vote,” says Myrna Pérez, director of the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections project. “But we’ve also seen some reforms that would expand access to the franchise.” Automatic voter registration measures, for example, will be in place in 10 states by November.
Then there are the demographic realities. “At the national level, the political parties have been increasingly sorted and divided by race, with more whites identifying as Republicans than Democrats,” says Ashley Jardina, a Duke University assistant professor of political science. “Meanwhile, most blacks and Hispanics identify with the Democratic Party. But whites still make up the majority of the national electorate. As a result, Democrats increasingly need people of color to vote to win national elections. Trump, and candidates like him, know it is much easier for them to win when people of color do not turn out.”
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It’s a strategy that works: Roughly 16 million voters were removed from state rolls in the three years following the 2013 Supreme Court Shelby County decision that neutered federal pre-clearance in the Voting Rights Act — unsurprisingly, the effect has been discriminatory. Another Supreme Court ruling in June allowed Ohio to continue its practice of purging voters who fail to respond to a mailer and to vote in consecutive federal elections. Mostly black and urban neighborhoods were targeted. Ohio is a state run by Republicans, after all.
Now, the stakes couldn’t be higher: Thirty-nine governorships are up for grabs. So is a third of the Senate, and theoretically the entire House. And only one party has told us, explicitly, that their only hope for maintaining power is to cheat scores of black and Hispanic-Americans out of their ability to make a choice as to who governs them. They have said it with all the confidence of a boxer who has rigged the fight. When politicians choose the people who choose them, they get a mistaken idea about who works for whom. Remind them who does the hiring here.