Charlotte—On Sunday I attended a fascinating panel of Southern politics experts convened by UNC–Chapel Hill. One of the major takeaways from the session was how diverse the South has become. For instance, Charlotte, the host city of the DNC, is now 45 percent white, 35 percent African-American and 13 percent Hispanic.
Among baby boomers aged 55–64, the South is 72 percent white. Among kids 15 or under, the South is 51 percent white, 22 percent Hispanic, 21 percent African-American and 6 percent other (which includes Asian-Americans and Native-Americans). In North Carolina, people of color accounted for 61 percent of the 1.5 million new residents the state gained over the past decade. Since 2008, the black and Hispanic share of eligible voters in North Carolina has grown by 2.5 percent, while the percentage of the white vote has decreased by a similar margin. This increasing diversity allowed Obama to win the Southern states of Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in 2008—all of which are competitive again in 2012.
The region’s changing demographics are a “ticking time bomb for Republicans,” said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center. The Southern GOP is 88 percent white. The Southern Democratic Party is 50 percent white, 36 percent African-American, 9 percent Hispanic and 5 percent other. The GOP’s dominance among white voters—who favor Romney over Obama by 26 points in the region—has allowed Republicans to control most of the region politically. But that will only be the case for so long if demographic trends continue to accelerate. Yet instead of courting the growing minority vote, Republicans across the South are actively limiting political representation for minority voters and making it harder for them to vote.
Eight of eleven states in the former Confederacy have passed restrictive voting laws since the 2010 election, as part of a broader war on voting undertaken by the GOP. Some of these changes have been mitigated by recent federal and state court rulings against the GOP, yet it’s still breathtaking to consider the different ways Republicans have sought to suppress the minority vote in the region.
• Laws mandating strict forms of government-issued identification to cast a ballot were passed in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Virginia tightened a looser voter ID law. A federal court blocked Texas’s discriminatory voter ID law last week and will rule on South Carolina’s law shortly. Mississippi and Alabama must also receive preclearance for their voter ID laws—which are scheduled to go into effect in 2013 and 2014—from a federal court in Washington or the Department of Justice under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. According to a 2005 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, 11 percent of US citizens don’t have government-issued IDs, but the number is 25 percent among African-Americans.
• Laws requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote were passed in Alabama and Tennessee. Restrictions on voter registration drives were enacted in Florida and Texas. Florida’s law has been overturned by a federal court. Texas’s law has also been blocked by a state judge. Data from the 2004 and 2008 elections in Florida show that “African-American and Hispanic citizens are about twice as likely to register to vote through drives as white voters,” according to Project Vote.
• Early voting periods were reduced in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. African-Americans in states like Florida were twice as likely to cast ballots during early voting as white voters. According to University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith, 800,000 voters in Florida cast ballots during early voting hours in 2008 eliminated by the GOP. A federal court overturned the law in the five Florida counties covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
• Florida also prevented felons convicted of nonviolent crimes from voting after they’ve served their time, which disenfranchised nearly 200,000 Floridians who would have been eligible to vote in 2012. Blacks are 13 percent of registered voters in Florida, but 23 percent of disenfranchised felons.
• Only three Southern states—Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina—did not pass restrictive voting laws since 2010. North Carolina Democratic Governor Bev Perdue twice vetoed efforts by North Carolina Republicans to pass a strict voter ID law before the 2012 election. If GOP gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory wins in November, it’s all but certain a tough voter ID law will be among the first pieces of legislation he signs.
• In conjunction with these new voting restrictions, Republicans all across the South used their control of state legislatures following 2010 to pass redistricting maps that will lead to a re-segregation of Southern politics, placing as many Democratic lawmakers into as few “majority minority” districts as possible as a way to maximize the number of Republican seats. “Their goal is to make the Republican Party a solidly white party and to make the Democratic Party a majority African-American one,” says Kareem Crayton, professor of law at UNC-Chapel Hill and an expert on voting rights in the South. The Texas redistricting maps, which a federal court ruled last week were “enacted with discriminatory purpose,” are simply a more extreme version of an effort that has been replicated in virtually every Southern state to undercut black and Hispanic political representation.
The consequences of these changes will be to make it harder for growing minority populations to be able to cast a ballot in much of the South and to make the region more segregated politically at a time when it is becoming more diverse demographically. “The net effect is that the potential for any coalition to exist in the Democratic Party of moderate-to-progressive whites and African-American voters is pretty much decimated,” says Crayton. Obama is betting he can once again turn out such a coalition in states like Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, but that task has become tougher in 2012. The outlook for state and local Democrats in the region is far bleaker.
The regression in the South today when it comes to voting rights is eerily reminiscent of tragic earlier periods in the region’s beleaguered racial history. “After Reconstruction, we saw efforts by conservative whites in Southern state legislatures to cut back on opportunities for black Americans to cast a ballot,” says Crayton. “It’s hard to dismiss the theory that what we’re seeing today is a replay of that scenario.”
Today, four Southern states (Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas) are supporting a constitutional challenge to Section 5 originating in Shelby County, Alabama. When Republicans in Tampa yearned for the good ol’ days, it was hard not to get the feeling that they were thinking of a time in the South when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not exist.
UPDATE: The Democratic Party convention platform opposes voter ID laws and "unecessary restrictions" on "the right to vote." Here's the section:
Voting Rights. We believe the right to vote and to have your vote counted is an essential American freedom, and we oppose laws that place unnecessary restrictions on those seeking to exercise that freedom. Democrats have a proud history of standing up for the right to vote. During the Obama administration, the Justice Department has initiated careful, thorough, and independent reviews of proposed voting changes, and it has prevented states from implementing voter identification laws that would be harmful to minority voters. Democrats know that voter identification laws can disproportionately burden young voters, people of color, low-income families, people with disabilities, and the elderly, and we refuse to allow the use of political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens.