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.
Now, it seems, the Republican Party is done with politics. The party has, in effect, abandoned serious engagement with the essence of political activism: trying to persuade voters to support the candidates and viewpoints of one or another political party. Urban voters, blacks, Latinos, young people and now perhaps even a majority of women voters appear beyond the reach or interest of the GOP.
As a result, the Republican Party is now a minority party that still demands majority power. And perhaps this is why the party appears determined to shrink the majority, borrowing from pre-civil rights-era Southern states that used voting and election laws to manipulate the voting strength of the electorate.
This is the context in which we should understand Republican election officials’ decision in Cincinnati last month to limit early voting in urban voting enclaves, while they guaranteed weekend voting and more flexible early voting hours in rural and suburban counties. Ending weekday early voting at 5 p.m. and canceling weekend early voting in Ohio’s most populous cities would ensure that working voters in these jurisdictions became second-class citizens to their counterparts who live outside the metro areas. A recent federal court decision requiring uniform early voting hours for all voters in the state may have reversed this plan.
This is why the Republican war on voting should not be viewed solely through the lens of race. Instead it should be seen as part of a larger attack on political participation, with deep historical roots that hark back to the darkest days of American democracy. Combined with the effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Republican voter-suppression efforts are a sobering reminder that we are only half a century removed from the time when, in many states, voting strength was based on race, wealth and place. These new voter-suppression tactics bring us perilously close to reliving those days.
This is what voter fraud really looks like, and all Americans, not just African Americans, stand to lose.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor of law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and a civil rights lawyer.