ID regulations: A supreme injustice for Democrats

Out of America: No one will admit it, but changes are plainly meant to deter black, minority and poor elderly voters

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The Independent Online

A sobering contrast lies at the heart of US elections. Their unmatched entertainment value masks the ruthlessness, the dirty tricks, and the downright subversion of democracy sometimes employed to win them. And rarely has the contrast been more vividly on display than last Thursday, 6 August.

That night the often reviled Fox News hosted the first Republican candidates’ debate, and it was magnificent television – the best event of its kind in the near 25 years I’ve been covering American politics. If this Donald Trump moment has sealed the merging of politics and showbiz, I’m all for it.

 But that same date also marked the 50th anniversary of the signing by Lyndon B Johnson of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the crowning achievement of his presidency and capstone of the civil rights legislation of the era. The Act put an end to blatant suppression of black and minority voting in seven southern states and in various other jurisdictions around the country. As a result, black voters turned out in force, and their candidates finally won public office in significant numbers.

 But in 2013, all that was threatened, as the Supreme Court struck down the Act’s key enforcement provision. The five conservative justices in the majority argued that since 1965 the South had been transformed and the protection extended by the law was no longer necessary. “Colourblind” was to be the bold new watchword of 21st century America. And the result? A flood of new restrictions on voting that will once again depress turnout of blacks and minorities.

 The methods of course have changed. Under the pre-1965 “Jim Crow” laws, a poll tax and literacy tests were used to deny black would-be voters their basic rights as citizens. The new curbs introduced by high court ruling two years ago are more subtle: stricter voter identification requirements at polling stations, limits on early voting and an end to same-day registration.

 

And the revived restrictions aren’t confined to Southern states (though Texas and North Carolina are the most egregious offenders). In the North too, legislatures controlled by Republicans have enacted similar measures, among them that of swing state Ohio, without which no recent presidential candidate has ever won the White House. But of all this, predictably, not a single word at Thursday’s debate.

For why should there have been? What’s happening is unalloyed good news for Republicans. No one will admit it (though Trump conceivably might have done so if asked), but the rules are plainly intended to reduce turnout by black, minority and poor elderly voters among whom Democrats dominate. Like Britain, America does not have ID cards, and by some estimates 10 per cent of the population is without as much as a driving licence.

Throw in as well the long-standing gerrymandering of electoral districts  – a practice perfected by Republicans – that is also often designed to reduce the impact of black and minority voters, and the widespread disenfranchisement of convicted (disproportionately black) felons even after they have served their sentences, and the Republicans have an ideally tilted playing field. 

For proof, look no further than the 2014 Congressional midterms, the first after the Supreme Court issued its decision on the VRA. Republicans triumphed, winning their biggest majority in the House of Representatives in 86 years and capturing the Senate as well. Meanwhile, turnout for these elections was a pitiful 36 per cent, the lowest since the Second World War – just the way the Grand Old Party wanted it.

 Republicans and conservative experts will tell you that the spate of  new voter ID laws is needed to stamp out voter fraud. But that is a solution in search of a problem. In recent elections, cases of voter impersonation – the type of fraud that stricter ID requirements are supposed to combat – can be counted on the fingers of one hand. One study has found only 31 such instances among the one billion votes cast in local and general elections here since 2000, and even some of that paltry number may be thrown out by the courts.

Yes, voter fraud does exist, and may even have handed George W Bush his crucial victory in Florida in 2000. But ID laws at polling stations do nothing to fight fraud where the system is most vulnerable, from absentee voting abuses to ballot-box stuffing by corrupt officials, and downright bribery of voters. Instead, they help tackle the true, long-term electoral problem Republicans face: how to cope with their diminishing traditional base of white, and especially male, voters, and an ever growing minority electorate, especially the Hispanic population, which in 2008 and 2012 voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama.

 This golden anniversary of the Voting Rights Act has brought calls for Congress to pass a new version, reinstating some of the lost safeguards. Indeed, a draft measure has already been drawn up, but Republican leaders in both House and Senate have not even set a date for discussion. And just like the party’s presidential candidates the other night, why should they broach the issue, when the Supreme Court is doing their work for them?

The 2013 ruling deemed unconstitutional the Act’s cornerstone provision, that the seven states and elsewhere must have prior approval from the Justice Department in Washington for any change in their voting laws. Now the department can only challenge such changes post facto, and face a long and uncertain struggle through the courts. The latest Texas restrictions have been thrown out by a federal appeals court, but the case will almost certainly end up before the Supreme Court. No prize for guessing the outcome.

 “History did not stop in 1965,” said Chief Justice John Roberts, explaining the decision. Indeed not, for the South has since been transformed, not least by the rout of the Democrats and its emergence as a Republican stronghold, just as LBJ predicted at the time. One thing though is just the same – the suppression of inconvenient votes.

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