A Ballot Box Tactic Has Deep Historical Roots

The GOP's war on voting rights isn't new. It harks back to past efforts to alter the political process.

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(The Root) -- In states from Florida to Pennsylvania, Republican Party efforts to diminish minority voting strength for this year's presidential election are a sobering reminder that the struggle for full civil rights is not over. But it's not only black voters who should be concerned about Republican voter-suppression tactics. The GOP's war on voting is a serious attack on the fundamental workings of our democracy. It is, at its core, an attempt to negate the important victories of the early 1960s that laid the foundation of our modern representative democracy.

To understand the breadth of the threat represented by voter-ID laws and other new practices designed to suppress votes in Democratic districts, it's important to realize that the effort to dismantle obstacles to voting rights for black voters in the South during the early 1960s did more than just enfranchise African Americans. It exposed the myriad ways in which key aspects of the American electoral system were fundamentally unfair for all voters. In particular, the disproportionate power afforded to underpopulated rural jurisdictions over the more populous cities was corrected by the Supreme Court in a series of cases that dismantled the framework of unequal voting power that had existed in the South since the turn of the 20th century.

The door opened in 1962 when, in Baker v. Carr, the Supreme Court decided that it could rule on cases raising constitutional challenges to state apportionment practices. In that case, the challenge was to Tennessee's failure for more than 60 years to adjust its state legislative districts, despite massive changes in the state's population. A year later, in Gray v. Sanders, the court outlawed Georgia's county-unit voting system, a vote-counting scheme that benefited less populous counties in the state.

In the most important and influential of these decisions, Reynolds v. Sims, the court announced the now internationally recognized bedrock principle of voting equality: one person, one vote. These cases rooted out practices advanced principally in the South that, by weighting votes in favor of rural areas, gave land and cattle greater voting strength than people. 

The principles announced in those cases are now such a part of our understanding of fairness in representative democracy that it's hard sometimes to remember that they are only 50 years old. In short, the fight to remove obstacles designed to keep blacks and the undereducated from voting -- like the poll tax, the literacy test and the understanding clause (in which a registrant would be asked to "interpret" a section of the state constitution) -- should be understood within the context of the larger effort to bring equity to a voting system that had been fixed in favor of Southern, rural land-owning elites.

By 1966, after the last of these and other barriers had been removed by the Supreme Court and by the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we'd begun the decades-long battle -- still under way -- to ensure that state and federal officials would enforce the laws that the Supreme Court had upheld. Once these structural barriers to voting were removed, those Southern white Dixiecrats (who formed the base of the modern post-civil rights Republican Party) committed to maintaining their political power and shifted their tactics to adjust to the new normal.

Because black and urban voters now proved a crucial vote in elections throughout the country, the politics of race-based fear increased and spread rapidly to the North. There, entrenched powers also sought to marginalize the potential for new voters to change the political landscape.

Richard Nixon's political "Southern strategy" was nationalized. Candidates who promised "law and order" flourished after the urban riots in Los Angeles' Watts and in Newark, N.J. The idea of candidates who would "return" America to its former glory grew in currency. By the 1980s, Republican political operative Lee Atwater had turned the politics of race and fear into an art form, with Willie Horton launched as the poster child for how to manipulate white swing voters.

Despite the reference to Sarah Palin's vice presidential nomination as a game changer in HBO's titular movie, it was Barack Obama's campaign in 2008 that was the real political transformative moment. Obama's ability to peel off the support of voters in three states of the old Confederacy -- Virginia, Florida and North Carolina -- shook the very foundations of the Southern strategy and left the Republican Party reeling.

The party's initial instinct was to try to undercut the president's "postracial" appeal, with party leaders asking Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to provide the response to President Obama's first State of the Union address, and selecting former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele as chair of the Republican National Committee. Both of these decisions soon proved hasty and ill-advised.