Republicans Boast About Voter Suppression in Tampa, but the Ground Is Shifting

Republicans Boast About Voter Suppression in Tampa, but the Ground Is Shifting

Republicans Boast About Voter Suppression in Tampa, but the Ground Is Shifting

Politicians inside the convention are proud of their voter supression tactics, but judges and the public increasingly disagree. 


A rally against voter supression at Centennial Park in Tampa Bay, Florida, on August 28, 2012. Photo by George Zornick

On the first full day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay, Republicans were not running from their record of voter suppression. At a fundraiser Tuesday afternoon not far from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, GOP superstars lined up to pay their respects to one of the key architects of recent voter-suppression tactics—Cleta Mitchell, a Tampa Bay–based attorney who is head of the Republican National Lawyers Association.

Earlier this year, before the House Judiciary Committee, Mitchell proudly testified that the “burdens” of voter identification laws—that is, some people not being able to vote—were justifiable to prevent non-existent fraud. “Because the purpose of a voter identification, a photo identification, is to ensure and protect the integrity of the election, whatever burden may exist is offset by the need to protect the integrity of the elections,” she testified. And Mitchell is not a newcomer to the voter-suppression game—back in 2008, she was running “training sessions” for GOP poll-watchers so they could fight back against a supposed “long pattern of abuses in registration by groups such as ACORN and their Democratic allies.”

The guest list to her party included six Republican senators, including powerhouses Jim DeMint and Marco Rubio, as well as former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who would address the convention hours later. (I staked out the entrance to the party and didn’t see the A-listers enter, though they appeared to be coming in through a secure parking garage. I did, however, spot conservative columnist George Will and Grover Norquist coming in).

Later that night, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley got one of the biggest applause lines of the convention so far when she boasted about her voter-suppression achievements back home. “We said in South Carolina that if you have to show a picture ID to buy Sudafed and you have to show a picture ID to set foot on an airplane, then you should have to show a picture ID to protect one of the most valuable, most central, most sacred rights we are blessed with in America—the right to vote,” she said.

But Haley’s timing was awful—the ground beneath voter-suppression efforts is falling away, in her state and elsewhere. On the same day Haley spoke, a trial was underway in South Carolina in which the state is suing Obama’s Department of Justice for blocking the voter identification law. And it isn’t going so well for the state. (Ari Berman has excellent coverage here).

The bill’s author, state Representative Alan Clemmons, took the stand yesterday and admitted he cannot produce a single example of in-person voter impersonation, and also conceded his law wouldn’t really stop a dedicated impersonator anyhow. Then, one lawyer presented racist e-mails sent to Clemmons about voter-identification laws—with which Clemmons agreed. (Someone e-mailed Clemmons to denounce the idea that black voters wouldn’t sign up for photo identification if an incentive was offered, saying “it would be like a swarm of bees going after a watermelon.” Clemmons replied, “Amen, Ed, thank you for your support,” a response he admitted in court yesterday was “poorly considered.”)

And just this morning, in Mitchell’s home state of Florida, a federal judge ruled that he would strike down one of the more pernicious Florida vote-suppression laws—one that restricted the ability of third-party groups to register voters. Republicans in the legislature passed laws that hurt Floridians’ ability to vote, all of which have now been halted: they shortened voting hours (which was blocked by a federal judge this month), attempted to purge voter rolls (also stopped by a court), and now the harsh restrictions on groups like the League of Women Voters and Project Vote have been lifted. These restrictions caused a huge imbalance in partisan voter registration—see this chart from The Rachel Maddow Show:

That gap is likely to be closed dramatically now that third-party registration can resume.

And outside the RNC, protesters were closely watching and demonstrating against the voter-suppression policies being trumpeted inside. At what was billed as a “large-scale” rally in Centennial Park, hundreds of young people—mainly African-Americans and undocumented Latinos—marched against voter-suppression tactics. “A lot of us here are undocumented immigrants and DREAMers, and we also have the African-American and Latino community gathered here to let the Republican Party know that it’s time to stop suppressing these communities of minorities,” said Erika Andiola, who traveled to the demonstration from Mesa, Arizona.

“Voter suppression directly affects immigrants. A lot of people ask me ‘What do you care about voter suppression if you can’t vote in the first place,’ and that’s exactly the point,” said Mayra Hidalgo, an undocumented immigrant living in Lakeland, Florida, who helped organize the rally. “Historically DREAMers have been so active in civic engagement and registering other people to vote, so that we can have our voices heard at the polls and elect those pro-DREAM Act and pro-immigration reform politicians. And now all of those voices are being silenced by these voter suppression laws.”

Rev. Charles McKenzie, the Florida coordinator for the Rainbow PUSH coalition, agreed that the demographics of the country are changing, and Republicans can’t suppress new votes and voices forever. “The message for [Republicans] is that there is another demographic in this country that is on the move. We’re watching you, we do not support your core value system, and you’re going to either change or you’re going to have to face the consequence of becoming a party that is out of date with, and out of step with, what America is becoming.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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