Black Voters Told, 'Relax, Don't Vote'

A Republican is convicted for authorizing misleading "robocalls" -- just one tactic being used to deter voters.

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Whether the claim was true was less important than Rollins' confirmation that keeping black turnout low was a Republican strategy. Now Republican campaign strategists simply refer to "city voters," or the "urban electorate," when describing how to address the thorny problem of black voters.

Robocalls, which have reportedly been used in previous elections in Maryland and elsewhere, are just one, and not even the most pernicious, form of voter suppression. All across this country, Republican-controlled legislatures have enacted a series of laws that make it harder for people to vote.

Voter-ID laws, which were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, now require voters in some states to proffer a government-issued ID, such as a driver's license or passport, in order to vote. Fifteen states require voters to show a government-issued photo identification at the polls. In eight of the those states, voters without a photo ID can vote only by provisional ballot and must return to the election administration within days of the election with a photo ID if they want their vote to count.

No problem if you are middle class and white and have ready access to transportation. But for elderly, disabled, rural or poor voters, obtaining and paying for such identification, or returning to the election administration office with such identification after Election Day, constitutes a considerable barrier to voting. It's an irony that almost 40 years after the Supreme Court abolished the poll tax, voters must now shell out money for a government-issued ID in order to vote.

In other states, Republicans are leading efforts to eliminate early voting and make it harder for college students to cast their ballots in the jurisdictions where they make their home for four years. Campaigns of disinformation suggesting that individuals whose homes are in foreclosure cannot vote, or that Latino voters will need to prove that no undocumented immigrants live in their home, are designed to scare off voters with the specter of challenge and humiliation at the polls.

But in a democracy, our efforts -- whatever our political affiliation -- should be focused on maximizing political participation. A healthy democracy is one in which all citizens regard themselves as partners and participants in the political process. We have to begin to take very seriously the threat to our democracy if the success of one of our two major political parties is partially premised on ensuring that the most marginalized people in the society don't show up on Election Day.

The barriers to registration that marginalized groups overcame with the passage of the Voting Rights Act as well as the 24th and 26th amendments to the Constitution have now moved to Election Day. It may require that kind of concerted and long-term effort, both in the courts and on the streets, to push back against these latest efforts to undo the work so hard fought for by earlier generations.

Schurick's attorney has called the robocalls a "faux pas" and a "political mistake." He's mistaken. Misleading robocalls, voter-ID laws and other voter-suppression efforts are smart political moves for Republicans. The only mistake they see is getting caught.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the judge presiding over the case is African American.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore and the author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century.

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