Last Friday, Donald Trump’s campaign significantly upped its attacks on the legitimacy of the presidential election. At a rally in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Mr. Trump declared that there’s only one way he could lose the state of Pennsylvania: if he’s cheated out of it. “We’re going to watch Pennsylvania. Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times,” he said. “If you do that, we’re not going to lose. The only way we can lose, in my opinion – I really mean this, Pennsylvania – is if cheating goes on.”
Mr. Trump’s comments drew immediate criticism from the press, which rightfully noted that there’s “almost no actual in-person voter fraud.” The conservative National Review, however, lambasted the broader media for discounting the threat of voter fraud, which it argued was particularly acute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a Democratic stronghold in the state. The National Review also assailed outlets, like the Los Angeles Times, for noting the “strong racial overtones” in Mr. Trump’s statements, pointing out that he “never mentioned race” in his comments.
The National Review is technically correct. Mr. Trump didn’t mention race. But he didn’t have to. Any allegation of “voter fraud,” and the measures aimed at preventing such fraud (like voter-ID laws) necessarily raise concerns over racialized politicking.
Consider how voter disenfranchisement works. It typically begins with the enfranchisement of a particular voting group or bloc, or increased influence of a minority group caused by shifting demographics. These changes result in increased minority influence and empowerment, causing real or perceived electoral gains that threaten the majority. And this threat causes reactionary policies and politicking by politicians seeking to limit or reverse that influence.
In the real world, it works like this:
Imagine that, along with adopting a more progressive legislative agenda, a state legislature passes major election reforms, expanding voter access or reversing earlier laws that suppressed minority turnout. The new laws might, for example, require appointment of neutral election judges, smaller precincts, limitations on registrar’s ability to disqualify voters, tougher standards to challenge voters, and alterations to ballots to make them easier to cast effectively.
Now suppose these measures work: turnout increases to roughly 85% of eligible voters. The success of the reforms is particularly pronounced in minority communities – in the African American community, for example, participation rises to its highest level in decades.
But not every political party is rejoicing at newfound minority electoral influence. Backlash against the new measures grow, and it begins to strain the civility of state party politics. Disputes over racial policies erupts as the majority, suddenly threatened by the new reality, reacts – sometimes violently. Influenced voters are motivated to the polls in response to the changes.
The next election, the reform-minded party is dispatched from power, and the new party moves quickly to dismantle the election reforms and implement new restrictions. They change Election Day from November to August. All voters are now required to register anew, and registrars are given discretion to exclude voters. Any ballot placed in the wrong box – of which there are now only six – whether by election officers or the voter himself, would now be considered void.
These changes produced their intended effects. Overall voter turnout in the state plummets. The African American turnout dries up completely. And the electoral threat to the status quo is eliminated for decades – nearly a century, in fact.
You needn’t imagine that scenario, because this is a true story, an account of legislative events in the state of North Carolina at the turn of the century.
The year, though, was not 2008 – when African American voters helped Democrat Barack Obama win North Carolina’s electoral votes – but 1900. And the party doing the disenfranchising was not the Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln who had large African American support, but the Democratic Party, whose base of support consisted primarily of racist white voters who would not vote for a party supported by blacks.
Fast forward to North Carolina in 2013, and the roles of the parties have been reversed. A new Republican legislature passed new voting restrictions following a Democratic presidential victory in 2008 and a closely contested 2012 presidential race. Over staunch Democratic objections, Republicans cut a week off early voting in the state, restricted the number of hours local election boards could remain open, eliminated same-day voter registration, opened up precincts to voter “challengers,” eliminated preregistration of sixteen- and seventeen-year olds in high schools, declared that voters who cast a ballot in the wrong precinct would have their whole ballot thrown out, and implemented a strict voter identification provision.
In 2013, as in 1900, the fight over voting restrictions was about partisan politics. But, importantly, it was also about race. The two – race and party – cannot be separated. The only way to understand these measures fully is to acknowledge the complexity and interaction between these forces.
In late July, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals did just that, striking down North Carolina’s voter restrictions and holding that the Republican-controlled legislature violated the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act. “The record makes clear that the historical origin of the challenged provisions in this statute is not the innocuous back-and-forth routine partisan struggle that the State suggests and that the district court accepted,” Judge Diana Motz wrote.
“Rather,” Judge Motz continued, “the General Assembly enacted them in the immediate aftermath of unprecedented African American voter participation in a state with a troubled racial history and racially polarized voting. The district court clearly erred in ignoring or dismissing this historical background evidence, all of which supports a finding of discriminatory intent.”
The Fourth Circuit’s decision was part of a slew of federal rulings striking down voting restrictions. North Carolina was a big win for voting rights advocates. The other huge win was in Texas, where the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguably the most conservative federal appeals court in the country, invalidated the state’s voter-ID provision and ordered the lower court to make it easier for people to vote. Similar rulings followed in Wisconsin, Ohio and South Dakota.
Our democracy is increasingly polarized along racial lines. And decisions like those out of North Carolina underscore the fact that, even in 2016, American democracy is under significant pressure.
The right to vote is not, and should not be, a political issue. When someone steps into the voting booth, they do so neither as a representative of any particular race nor as a member of any particular political party. They do so as an American.
But like the Democratic Party of 1900 (and for many years thereafter), the Republican Party of 2016 is a homogenous white, male, older and Southern-based party that is competing against a racially and ethnically diverse, younger, liberal, and Northern-based opposition. And faced with similar demographic challenges, rather than meeting minority voters on their turf, the Republican Party has chosen to abandon inclusivity and artificially restrict constitutional rights.
Don’t buy the line from Donald Trump and the Republican Party that voting restrictions are about “combatting voter fraud” or “protecting the integrity of our elections.” Restrictive voting laws are, and always have been, about the omnipresent issue that has shaped electoral policy: race.
Featured Image Credit: DonkeyHotey on Flickr