GOP leaders in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — all blue states with Republican governors — have expressed interest in the electoral changes. But as Bloomberg columnist Albert Hunt writes, “If this sort of political coup had been pulled off earlier, instead of celebrations on the streets of Washington during last week’s presidential inauguration, there would have been violent protests.” Indeed. And African Americans may well have led the fight.
This kind of disenfranchisement isn’t new to the black community, and its long, dark history has left too many scars to go unnoticed. Republicans were equally bold in their attempts to undermine minority votes ahead of the 2012 elections. Pennsylvania’s House Republican leader Mike Turzai declared that a voter-ID law would “help Mitt Romney win” — ostensibly by disenfranchising African Americans, college students and the elderly. In Ohio, a senior Republican official fought against extensions to voting hours, writing in an email that such a move would only serve the “urban — read African-American — voter turnout machine.”
Though liberal activists, community leaders and Democratic officials successfully blocked voter-suppression efforts in 2012, the sinister tactics now being employed are almost completely legal. With the exception of Southern states like Virginia, which is subject to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and therefore could face judicial review before any electoral changes are approved, other states are allowed to assign electoral votes however they please, based on Article 2 of the Constitution. In fact, Nebraska and Maine already assign votes by congressional district (though between them they constitute only nine of a total 538 electoral votes). The popular-vote method used in all other states has been a defining factor of American democracy.
The Electoral College system, of course, has not been without its critics. Following George W. Bush’s tepid win against Al Gore in 2000 — when Bush prevailed in Florida but lost the popular vote — some Democrats called for an abolishment of the system altogether. The National Popular Vote initiative is currently gaining popularity and could potentially pass with the support of blue states alone, but that would take time to orchestrate, as well as require ratification by two-thirds of both the U.S. House and Senate. Such a conclusion is unlikely.
But not all is gloom and doom. The new Republican plan may prove to be an example of shooting first and aiming later. The increased turnout of minority voters in the last election was in part due to the perception that the GOP and its operatives were deliberately trying to limit voting. As Slate’s Richard L. Hasen points out, any “rigging” or “gaming” of the system in the future could deliver a similar backlash — public outcry, unwarranted media attention and threat of political consequences.
In addition, though the preclearance provision of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act largely applies to former Confederate states — and its fate is in doubt as the conservative-leaning Supreme Court reviews it this year — Section 2 of the act offers a general prohibition against voting discrimination, with a recourse through litigation in federal court. Attorney General Eric Holder is, therefore, likely to challenge any change to presidential election rules that would amount to disenfranchisement.
Despite President Obama’s decisive win, the Republican Party has yet to concede defeat. Instead of embracing the nation’s demographic evolution, Republicans have chosen opportunism over altruism. Such a path can only spell their self-inflicted demise.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.