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Why GOP's Southern Strategy Moved North

The scariest voter-ID laws might be the ones that aren't in solidly red states.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

(The Root) -- Republicans have devised an insidious plan to steal the 2012 presidential election, and it's a page torn from the history books about Jim Crow South. 

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law compiled a comprehensive report showing that 24 new laws and two executive actions restricting the right to vote have passed in 19 states since 2011.The reason? GOP lawmakers claim that the laws are designed to combat voter fraud. But opponents of the laws, including the Justice Department, see them as the disenfranchisement of African-American voters -- and covert subversion of the Voting Rights Act -- that is central to the GOP's strategy for the 2012 elections. And the concerted effort to fulfill Sen. Mitch McConnell's No. 1 priority of making "Obama a one-term president" is being carried out with military precision.

Perhaps a brief history lesson is in order. After the Civil War and emancipation in 1865, the right of suffrage was broadly exercised by freedmen. During Reconstruction, African-American men achieved high office in state legislatures as well as in the U.S. Congress. But a set of restrictive voting laws -- including poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses -- quickly reversed progress and led to 100 years of second-class citizenry.

The remnants of this sordid past are still evident in the racial disparities present in our politics. Even today, with an African American in the Oval Office, not one sits in the Senate. The cultural divide that kept the American South solidly red and Republican after the civil rights era was so widely accepted as status quo that no one dared question it. 

That was, of course, until November 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama swept Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. He narrowed margins in states like South Carolina -- and garnered more of the military vote than had been anticipated, given John McCain's record as a war hero.

The GOP quickly regrouped, perhaps realizing that in order to beat Obama in 2012, they would have to move their "Southern strategy" further north.

First they set their sights on ACORN, a national community organization group responsible for registering 1.3 million new voters in 2008. African Americans, Hispanics, the urban poor and the elderly were ACORN's key constituencies. After being plagued by largely unfounded accusations of voter-registration fraud, the nonprofit was gutted as congressional Republicans denied federal funding. Several supporters of voter-ID laws cite ACORN as their reason.

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 Next, conservatives took their plan nationwide. Fueling propaganda that millions of Mexican immigrants were draining government health care resources and voting illegally, Republicans pushed for stricter voter laws at the state level and harsher immigration policies. Why? One reason could be that Obama received 76 percent of the Hispanic vote -- and a growing coalition of Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans had made the nation's smaller conservative Cuban community less politically relevant.

Abandoning President George W. Bush's more inclusive approach, the Tea Party-influenced GOP assumed that the Latino vote -- like the black vote -- wasn't worth courting. This is where Ohio and Pennsylvania become so crucially important, since poor and working-class whites make up a significant part of the electorate there.