The GOP’s Voter Suppression Strategy

The GOP’s Voter Suppression Strategy

The GOP’s Voter Suppression Strategy

It didn’t work for Republicans in this election—but their war on voting is far from dead.


(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

In a little-noticed yet significant development on election day, Minnesota voters defeated a constitutional amendment that would have required them to present a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot. It was the first time voters had rejected a voter ID ballot initiative in any state. 

In May 2011, a poll showed that 80 percent of Minnesotans supported a photo ID law. “Nearly everyone in the state believed a photo ID was the most common-sense solution to the problem of voter fraud,” says Dan McGrath, executive director of Take Action Minnesota, a progressive coalition that led the campaign against the amendment. “We needed to reframe the issue. We decided to never say the word ‘fraud.’ Instead we would only talk about the cost, complications and consequences of the amendment.” According to the coalition, the photo ID law would have disenfranchised eligible voters (including members of the military and seniors) dumped an unfunded mandate on counties and imperiled same-day voter registration. On election day, 52 percent of Minnesotans opposed the amendment. 

The amendment’s surprising defeat has ramifications beyond Minnesota. “There’s been an assumption of political will for restricting the right to vote,” says McGrath. “No, there’s not.” The amendment backfired on the GOP. “Voter ID did not drive the conservative base to turn out in the way that Republicans thought it would,” adds McGrath. “Instead, it actually inspired progressive voters, who felt under siege, to fight stronger and turn out in higher numbers.” The minority vote nearly doubled in the state, compared with 2008. Minnesota was a microcosm of the national failure of the GOP’s voter suppression strategy. 

After the 2010 election, in more than a dozen states Republicans passed voting restrictions aimed at reducing the turnout of Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant”—young voters, African-Americans and Hispanics. The strategy didn’t work as intended. Ten major restrictive voting laws were blocked in court over the past year, and turnout among young, black and Latino voters increased as a share of the electorate in 2012 compared with 2008. The youth vote rose from 18 to 19 percent, and the minority vote increased from 26 to 28 percent; both went heavily for Obama. 

A backlash against voter suppression added to this increased youth and minority turnout. “When they went after big mama’s voting rights, they made all of us mad,” said the Rev. Tony Minor, Ohio coordinator of the African American Ministers Leadership Council. The black vote rose in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia, while the Latino vote grew in Florida, Colorado and Nevada. “There were huge organizing efforts in the black, Hispanic and Asian communities, more than there would’ve been, as a direct result of the voter suppression efforts,” says Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions, a Latino polling and research firm. 

In late September, Project New America, a Denver center-left research group, tested more than thirty messages on “sporadic, less likely voters who lean Democratic” (which included young, black and Hispanic voters) to see what would motivate them to vote. “One of the most powerful messages across many different demographics was reminding people that their votes were important to counter the extremists who are kicking people off of voter rolls,” the group wrote in a post-election memo. 

The increase in voter turnout among these key demographics, however, doesn’t mean that voter suppression laws did not have an impact or would not have decided the election outcome if the race had been closer. Court rulings and voter education efforts limited the damage but didn’t stop it. A flood of horror stories poured in during early voting and on election day: voters waiting in line for seven hours in Florida, wrongly turned away for lack of photo ID in Pennsylvania, improperly forced to cast provisional ballots in Ohio. The day after the election, 600,000 early votes and provisional ballots remained uncounted in Arizona, most of them in heavily Latino Maricopa County. According to Hart Research Associates, black and Hispanic voters were two to three times more likely than whites to wait more than thirty minutes to cast their ballot.

In-person early voting declined in Florida because of fewer early voting hours, compared with 2008. Florida voter registration dropped by 14 percent because of the twelve months in 2011–12 when the state shut down voter registration drives. The 1-866-Our-Vote hotline received more than 9,000 calls from Pennsylvanians on election day, many from voters wrongly told by poll workers that a photo ID was required in order to vote. Twice as many voters in Philadelphia as in 2008 had to cast provisional ballots because their names were missing from voter rolls. Of all the swing states, Pennsylvania had the sharpest drop in voter turnout, down by more than 7 percent from 2008, which could be attributable to confusion over its suspended voter ID law. 

The 2012 election was a case study in how not to run an election. New voting restrictions and confusion over recent court decisions exacerbated problems lingering since 2000: broken voting machines, an antiquated voter registration system, ungodly lines, misinformed poll workers and partisan election officials. 

Obama’s ad-lib on election night about long lines at the polls—“by the way, we have to fix that”—energized the movement for election reform. There are smart proposals in Congress, including the Voter Empowerment Act, but it’s unclear what the follow-through will be. The Help America Vote Act of 2002, a response to the 2000 fiasco in Florida, did little to remedy the nation’s election problems. For example, the US Election Assistance Commission, created by HAVA to help states run their elections, has no commissioners, executive director or general counsel, and hasn’t met publicly since 2011. Last year in Congress, Republicans tried to abolish the agency; Democrats have done little to resurrect it. Before Congress tries to pass sweeping election reform, it should take the baby step of getting an election commission back up and running. 

Despite Romney’s defeat, GOP-controlled states appear likely to press ahead with new voting restrictions. In Florida, for instance, Governor Rick Scott put his secretary of state—who supported controversial voting restrictions and an ill-considered voter purge—in charge of determining what went wrong with the election. He should start by interviewing his boss. Until conservatives start courting the increasingly diverse electorate, voter suppression will continue to be the party’s main response to demographic change. 

The GOP’s war on voting is far from dead. Just three days after the election, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a conservative challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which compels parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to clear election-related rule changes with the federal government. The case will likely be heard early next year. Veteran Court watchers believe the five conservative justices are prepared to overturn Section 5, which Attorney General Eric Holder has called the “keystone of our voting rights.” 

Voter suppression attempts over the past two years prove that Section 5 is still needed. Of the nine states covered fully by it, six have passed new voting restrictions since 2010. “The states that passed discriminatory voting laws were disproportionately covered by Section 5,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. The Justice Department successfully objected to restrictive voting laws in Florida, South Carolina and Texas under Section 5 this election cycle. And despite clear evidence of its necessity, the landmark act is under attack: it has been challenged more in the past two years than in the previous forty-five years combined, according to Columbia University Law School professor Nate Persily. 

Only a Supreme Court divorced from reality—which this Court may well be—would review the record on voting rights since Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 and conclude that a key pillar of the law is no longer needed. If anything, Section 5 should be expanded to include states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Losing Section 5 would greenlight the very kind of voter suppression that proved so unpopular in 2012. 

Ari Berman, in his blog, recently reported on “Why We Still Need Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”

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