BETTER LATE than never, federal courts are turning back the tide of voter suppression measures enacted by Republican-controlled state legislatures with the all-too-transparent intent of discouraging minority and other Democratic-leaning citizens from exercising their clout at the polls.
On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit threw out a particularly obnoxious North Carolina law whose provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” in an effort to tilt the electoral playing field to the GOP. In a similar opinion last week, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled the state’s voter-ID law unconstitutional and ordered election officials to broaden the types and accessibility of acceptable IDs.
For years, Republican state lawmakers have been devising an array of voting measures whose burdens fall disproportionately on black, Hispanic and young voters, who tend to vote for Democrats. Their project amounts to a legislative strategy of playing to the whistle — testing the boundaries of constitutional tolerance before federal judges gag and call foul.
Some of the GOP-sponsored state laws are more blatantly discriminatory than others. North Carolina’s elicited the ire of the appeals court because of its brief list of acceptable photo IDs and an accompanying suite of other restrictive rules, including ones forbidding voters from registering to vote on Election Day, from registering before reaching the voting age of 18, and from casting early ballots.
The timing of North Carolina’s law also reinforced suspicions that the GOP agenda was voter suppression along racial lines. Republicans wrote and enacted it immediately after the Supreme Court lifted a long-standing requirement, in force since the Jim Crow era, that the Justice Department preapprove any change to the state’s voting laws.
An equally egregious example is the voter-ID law in Texas, where federal courts have found that more than 600,000 people would be unable to procure or afford an ID deemed valid, and that disproportionate numbers of them are black and Hispanic. A federal district judge is fixing the law in time for November’s elections.
Other measures elsewhere are subtler. In Virginia, expert testimony in an ongoing federal challenge to the state’s voter-ID statute, enacted in 2013, indicates that the law’s burden of inconvenience falls disproportionately on black and Hispanic voters, who are less likely to have the mandated forms of ID.
However, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson concluded that despite the law’s disparate impact on minorities, the inconvenience does not amount to a “substantial burden” on voting. Besides, Judge Hudson wrote, Virginia’s law is a reasonable response to public anxiety about electoral fraud. Never mind that, as the judge acknowledged, there’s no evidence such fraud exists — or that the anxiety he cited is the byproduct of a feedback loop manufactured by Republicans as justification to “solve” a nonexistent problem.
The effect of the GOP crusade of disenfranchisement will be to reinforce the alliance between minority voters and Democrats for years or decades to come. It subverts efforts by so-called moderates to burnish Republicans’ appeal to minorities and cements the GOP’s image as the party of exclusion and racial bias.
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