September 2

A trial begins today in a federal courtroom in Texas to determine the constitutionality of the state’s voter identification law, which is widely acknowledged to be the most restrictive in the nation. It has gone through a number of twists and turns: Passed in 2011, it was struck down in federal court in 2012 as a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Then in 2013 the Supreme Court gutted the VRA. Now the law faces a new trial based on a different VRA section.

In the end, the Republicans who passed this law may prevail, particularly since the only racial discrimination the conservative majority on the Supreme Court apparently finds troubling is the kind that might affect a white person somewhere. But Republicans may have underestimated just how much damage they continue to do to their party’s image by trying, anywhere and everywhere, to make it as hard as possible for the wrong people to vote.

True, voter ID is not at the forefront of the national debate. Majorities do tell pollsters that you should have to show ID to vote, since it has a certain intuitive appeal. But when the subject is actually debated and discussed in the news, it drives people away from the GOP — and not just any people, but precisely the people the party wants so desperately to improve among to stay competitive in national elections.

First, some background. While there is a certain amount of voter fraud in American elections, almost all of it happens through absentee ballots. The only kind of fraud prevented by voter ID laws is in-person voter impersonation, which is incredibly rare. As Zachary Roth has detailed, when Greg Abbott became the state’s attorney general, he vowed a crusade against the “epidemic” of voter fraud in the state. How many cases did he find that would have been stopped by the ID law? Two. Meanwhile, according to the state’s own figures, almost 800,000 Texans lack the appropriate state-issued ID to vote.

The best you can say about the Texas law and others like it is that the motivation for them isn’t so much old-style racism as naked partisanship. The problem today’s Republicans have with black people voting isn’t the fact that they’re black, it’s the fact that they’re Democrats. Republicans also want to make it hard for Latinos to vote, and young people, and urban dwellers who don’t drive. When they wrote into the Texas law that a student ID from a state university wouldn’t count as identification but a concealed carry gun permit would, they made it quite clear that the point was to discriminate on the basis of your likelihood to vote Democratic. These laws often are accompanied by measures doing things like restricting early voting, particularly on Sundays when many black churches conduct voting drives.

So let’s dispense with the laughable notion that the reason many Republican-controlled states have passed a voter ID law is nothing more than deep concern for the integrity of the ballot. With the exception of the claim that laws mandating absurd restrictions on abortion providers are really just about protecting women’s health, there is probably no more disingenuous argument made in politics today. Yes, Democrats who oppose these laws are also thinking about their party’s political fortunes. But one side wants to make it easy for people to vote, and one side is trying to make it harder.

The success of voter ID laws in suppressing votes has been mixed. Some studies have found little or no impact on turnout, while others have shown significant declines in it. Where the laws fail to achieve their goal of suppressing votes, it’s probably because Democrats often undertake substantial effort to counteract them by registering people and helping them acquire the proper identification.

In any case, this law and others like it may well end up surviving. While this year courts have struck down voter ID laws in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the laws are likely to get a friendly hearing from the conservatives on the Supreme Court, which first upheld a voter ID law in 2008. And for Republicans, the calculation seems straightforward enough. They know that the groups with whom they’re strongest, like older white voters, homeowners, rural voters, married voters, and so on, are the ones most likely to have driver’s licenses and therefore not find an ID law to be a hindrance. Make voting an extra hassle for the wrong kind of voters, and you may get a few thousand, or a few hundred thousand, to stay home — making the difference in a close election.

But for a party that is struggling to appeal to precisely those demographic groups targeted by voter ID laws, such short-term gains risk getting swamped by long-term damage to its image. The voter ID debate reinforces everything the GOP doesn’t want people to think about it: that it’s the party of old white people, that it has contempt for minorities, that it knows nothing about the lifestyles and concerns of young people (who are far less likely than their parents were to get driver’s licenses), and that it will do virtually anything to win. You can’t spend a bunch of energy doing something that will make it harder for, for instance, Latinos to cast ballots, then turn around and say, “By the way, if you manage to make it past all these obstacles we’ve put in your path, we’d really like your vote.” But so far, few in the GOP seem to understand that.