On January 9, 2008, six days after Barack Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucuses, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to Indiana’s strict voter-ID law, the first of its kind. Ted Cruz, then solicitor general of Texas, filed a brief on behalf of Texas and seven other GOP-led states in support of the law.
Though Indiana presented no evidence of voter impersonation to justify the measure, Cruz wrote: “The specter of voter fraud has threatened the integrity of the electoral process for the entire history of our Nation.” Indiana did not have to show recent examples of such fraud, his brief argued, because “there is no right to be free from any inconvenience or burden in voting.”
Such burdens increased dramatically after the Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s law and Obama was elected president. Since 2010, 21 states—nearly all of them under Republican control—have implemented new voting restrictions, and the Supreme Court has overturned the centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Cruz has been at the forefront of this new movement to make it harder to vote.
As a senator from Texas, Cruz has championed his state’s voter-ID law, the strictest in the country. The law—which allows voters presenting a handgun permit to cast a ballot, but not those with a student ID—has been blocked by federal courts on three occasions. Cruz’s website featured a petition calling on supporters to tell Obama: “Don’t Mess With Texas Voter ID Laws.”
Praising the Supreme Court decision that gutted the VRA, Cruz claimed it no longer subjected “democratically-elected state legislatures to second-guessing by unelected federal bureaucrats.” Two hours after the Court ruled, in a separate verdict, that states couldn’t require proof of citizenship for voter registration in federal elections, he filed an amendment to an immigration bill that would override the decision.
Despite his outspoken conservatism, Cruz is not an outlier in the GOP on voting rights. The leading Republican presidential candidates—who unanimously support tough new voting restrictions—have all opposed efforts to expand access to the ballot box.
As a senator from Florida—a state with a well-documented history of voter suppression—Marco Rubio opposed the restoration of voting rights for nonviolent ex-felons and supported his state’s cutbacks in early voting, which contributed to seven-hour lines during the 2012 election. That same year, he supported a controversial purge of voter rolls by Governor Rick Scott that was stopped by a federal court. Along with Cruz, Rubio also backed a Senate amendment requiring a government-issued photo ID to vote in federal elections.
The so-called moderates in the race are no better. In the pivotal swing state of Ohio, Governor John Kasich signed legislation that cut the window for early voting and eliminated same-day voter registration.
As governor of Florida, Jeb Bush presided over a disastrous voter purge in 2000, when more than 12,000 registered voters were wrongly labeled as felons and blocked from the polls; his efforts helped swing that election in his brother’s favor. Florida barred ex-felons from casting ballots without the governor’s approval, and Bush OK’d just one-fifth of the 385,522 applications for voting-rights restoration submitted during his eight years in office, according to Mother Jones.
Like Rubio, Bush has evidently learned little from Florida’s numerous election debacles. While campaigning in Iowa in October, Bush said that he didn’t support restoring the VRA, a law his own brother reauthorized in 2006, because “there’s been dramatic improvement in access to voting…exponentially better improvement, and I don’t think there’s a role for the federal government to play in most places.”
While Bush denounced the VRA, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed an ambitious reform bill that would have added two weeks of early voting, as well as online registration and automatic voter registration at his state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. During the 2014 elections, Christie said it was essential that Republicans be in control of “overseeing the voting mechanism” in 2016.
Not to be outdone, GOP front-runner Donald Trump recently warned: “This voting system is out of control. You have people, in my opinion, that are voting many, many times.”
Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, criticizes his party’s myopic focus on voter fraud and its opposition to the VRA. “Republicans should be less afraid of how people vote and more concerned with making sure they do vote,” he says. Instead, from the GOP’s top-tier presidential candidates, “we’ve heard bubkes. They’ve said nothing. No one has made a speech about voting rights. No one has argued that the VRA should be restored.”
The contrast between the parties has never been starker. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, for example, have called for fixing the VRA and making it much easier for people to register to vote and get access to the ballot.
Republicans “are political cowards, and if they can’t face a free election, they should get another job,” Sanders told Rachel Maddow. During a major speech on voting rights in June, Clinton asked: “What part of democracy are they afraid of?”
Everyday voters have been the casualties of the GOP’s attack on voting rights. After finishing a sentence for cocaine possession in 2013, Kelli Jo Griffin of Montrose, Iowa, was told by her lawyer that she was once again eligible to vote. The 42-year-old cleaned up her life and took her four children with her to the polls during a local election in 2013. Unbeknownst to Griffin, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad had revoked the automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-felons in 2011, so she was ineligible to cast a ballot. Facing a penalty of 15 years in prison, Griffin was prosecuted for knowingly lying on a voter-registration form. It was the first trial resulting from a massive investigation into voter fraud launched by Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, who left office in 2014 and is now Cruz’s Iowa campaign chairman.
The jury deliberated for less than 40 minutes before acquitting Griffin. “I’m glad I can go back to being a mother,” she told The Des Moines Register.
Schultz spent two years and more than $250,000 of taxpayer money on his elaborate probe, but netted only six convictions out of 1.6 million votes cast in Iowa in 2012—a success rate of 0.00037 percent. “Schultz’s wolf cry ended in a whimper,” The Quad City Times wrote. Schultz was cited for misusing state funds from the Help America Vote Act and was blocked three times by a state court from attempting to illegally purge Iowa’s voter rolls.
Despite his lack of success, Schultz has urged Republicans to take up his voter-fraud crusade. “You have to start caring about voter ID and election integrity,” he said in 2013, “because if you don’t have that, you’ll never be able to make a difference in any other issue you care about. Never. Because they will cheat!”
Cruz shares Schultz’s apocalyptic view of Democrats as serial cheaters. During a campaign stop in South Carolina, he nodded when a questioner asserted that Obama was elected in 2008 because of fraud. “We have to win by a big enough margin so they can’t steal the election,” Cruz replied.
Ironically, if anyone is gaming the system to win an election, it’s Republicans like Cruz, who are rewriting election laws to their benefit in state after state.
It was only a decade ago that George W. Bush signed a 25-year reauthorization of the VRA—which had been approved 390–33 in the House and 98–0 in the Senate—but it feels like a century has passed. Today, critics of the VRA, who used to be a minority in the GOP, are now the vocal majority.
“We had a very big hand in the VRA’s creation and in sustaining it over the years,” Michael Steele says. “And now Republicans are controlling the Congress and it’s sitting there unattended to. To me, that is abhorrent. It’s a slap in the face of those Republicans who fought for the law and those Republicans who fought for civil rights since Reconstruction.”
It’s been a long time since the GOP was the Party of Lincoln. But regardless of what happens in Iowa and thereafter, when it comes to voting rights, the GOP is now the Party of Cruz.