The Supreme Court has granted Ohio’s request to throw out a ruling by lower courts stopping the state from implementing a law on early voting passed by the Republican state legislature. Meanwhile, cases on Republican-passed voting laws in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Texas are also working their way through the courts, and may all wind up in front of the Supreme Court in one way or another.
So here’s a prediction: Republicans are going to win every single one of these cases. No matter how compelling the arguments of the opponents are, the simple fact is that there are five conservative justices who think that almost anything a state does to restrict people’s ability to vote is just fine with them.
If you’re looking for the “tell” in laws like Ohio’s, you can find it on a Sunday — namely, the Sunday before the election (or sometimes every Sunday in the early voting period), which these laws almost always eliminate as a day when early voting can take place. What’s the significance of that Sunday? It’s the day when black churches conduct “Souls to the Polls” drives, organizing parishioners to head over to vote after services are over.
If you were a Republican looking to shape the voting laws to your partisan advantage, that’s a natural target, since a black person voting almost always means a vote for Democrats. Voter ID requirements are another obvious path to pursue, since the millions of Americans who don’t have driver’s licenses are more likely to be poor, urban, young, or minority — all groups that tilt Democratic. Or you can do what they did in Texas, writing the law so that a state-issued hunting license counts as a legitimate ID, but a state university-issued student ID doesn’t.
In the past few years, Republicans everywhere have viewed restrictions on voting as an essential component of seeking and holding power. Since 2010, when Republicans won sweeping victories not only in Congress but in state legislatures all over the country, 22 states have passed voting restrictions, usually through some combination of ID requirements, restrictions on early voting, and limitations on voter registration drives. There are only a few Republican-controlled states that haven’t tried to restrict voting. Here’s a summary of the laws from the Brennan Center for Justice:
Of the 22 states with new restrictions, 18 passed entirely through GOP-controlled bodies, and Mississippi’s photo ID law passed by a voter referendum. Two of the remaining three states — Illinois and Rhode Island — passed much less severe restrictions. According to a recent study from the University of Massachusetts Boston, restrictions were more likely to pass “as the proportion of Republicans in the legislature increased or when a Republican governor was elected.”
Race was also a significant factor. Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, 7 have new restrictions in place. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, 9 passed laws making it harder to vote. And nearly two-thirds of states — or 9 out of 15 — previously covered in whole or in part by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of a history of race discrimination in voting have new restrictions since the 2010 election.
So if you live in a Republican-controlled state, chances are it’s harder for you to register and/or vote than it was five years ago. This is, in part, a pathology of federalism. Instead of having a national voting system with strict accountability, we leave it up to the states and thousands of municipalities, where the opportunities for partisan manipulation and simple incompetence are legion. But it wouldn’t be impossible to have 51 separate systems that all made it simple and convenient for every American to vote. The reason we don’t (or even vote on a weekend day, like every other civilized country) is that one of our two great parties sees in the chaos of the current system an opportunity to put a thumb on the electoral scales.
To be clear, I’m not saying Democrats don’t try to game the system where they can. But there’s a fundamental difference: Democrats want to make voting as easy as possible so as many people as possible will vote, while Republicans want to make voting as difficult as possible to restrict the number of people who vote. Even if both are seeking to maximize their partisan advantage, that doesn’t mean that they’re both occupying the same moral ground.
(A side note to my Republican friends: if you’re wondering why your efforts to reach out to minorities always fail, to start with you might look at the fact that your party is constantly looking for new ways to keep them from voting. People notice, and don’t forget.)
The Ohio case the Supreme Court intervened in yesterday may look like a small matter, but it’s another clear signal from the five conservatives on the Court. After they opened up elections to unlimited corporate money and gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, you can bet that almost any law passed by a Republican legislature, no matter how nakedly partisan, will get a friendly hearing from them.
Democrats have tried to respond by putting more resources into registration and turnout drives, which is sometimes successful. But ever since 2000, when the Court’s conservatives handed the election to George W. Bush in a ruling many legal observers consider the worst piece of jurisprudence since Dred Scott, Democrats have known that the deck is stacked against them. The wave of voter restrictions passed in the last few years means that in every election, Republicans start with an advantage. And the conservative majority on the Supreme Court has their back.