Look out, voting people. The 2016 Democratic presidential primaries have fast become the early-warning detection system on voter-ID laws.
And based on what we’ve seen thus far, the electoral weather patterns don’t look so good.
Conversations on the expanding voter-ID and voter-suppression franchises have, up to this point, centered on election Armageddon scenarios in the general phase. When one is bracing for potentially sinister outcomes on Nov. 8, knowing what’s happening in the primary can offer a crucial preparation window. There’s good reason for seemingly over-the-top predictions: We’re about to witness the first major presidential cycle in generations without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You can thank the Supreme Court for that, ruling in its infinite conservative wisdom to completely gut the one provision—Section 5—that gave the seminal civil-rights-era law any juice to begin with.
“Our country has changed,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the 2013 majority opinion (pdf) in the fateful Shelby County v. Holder case. “Problems remain in these states and others, but there is no denying that, due to the Voting Rights Act, our nation has made great strides.”
What’s he saying about that now? Roberts must have mistaken running backward as a cool, new Olympic sport—or maybe he was fine serving as accomplice to an all-out Republican coup of the national voting system. Clearly unable and unwilling to compete for rapidly growing blocs of diverse voters, the GOP designed a complex perfect storm of electoral corruption at all levels of local, state and federal government: state legislatures passing rigged laws; governors signing them; municipalities and counties with no choice but to comply; election boards deliberately ill-equipped for oversight and response; state attorneys general impotent; Supreme Court driving the getaway car; and do-nothing members of Congress munching on doughnuts at the murder scene.
Less than two full years after that assessment, voter-suppression laws have actually ramped up much earlier than even their staunchest supporters had anticipated.
“And think about it,” Don Cravins, National Urban League vice president of policy, tells The Root. “This is just the precursor to the general election.”
In pointing out lower Democratic turnout during these entertaining primaries and caucuses, Republican-driven tales leave out the part about how much voter-ID laws are responsible for that. Democratic primary turnout is far lower (less than 12 percent of eligible primary voters) than it was in 2008 (20 percent), and 5 percentage points lower overall than voter turnout in the raucous GOP primary. And while it’s easy to dismiss it as lower voter enthusiasm on one side, reports suggest that voter-suppression laws kicked in strong, offering us an early crystal ball into a potentially chaotic general election.
Already, a Huffington Post analysis shows us 30 percent to over 50 percent drops in Democratic voter turnout in six of the first eight primary and caucus states (South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee and Texas).
“Those data suggest that Democratic turnout has dropped more in states with newly enacted voter-ID laws than in states with no new laws,” notes Zoltan Hajnal, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “It is entirely plausible that newly enacted voter-identification laws are disproportionately hurting minority turnout in these primaries.”
Our only gauge of how much it hurts turnout among people of color is the Democratic primary, since black and brown voters (especially African Americans) aren’t exactly jumping into GOP primaries. That lopsided demographic advantage for Democrats terrifies Republicans—while, as one Hajnal study (pdf) finds, “ … strict voter-identification laws double or triple existing U.S. racial voting gaps,” with white voters (such as the growing throngs of newly registered Donald Trump supporters) gaining an advantage from the disparity.
Super Tuesday primary states with some range of voter-ID laws in effect—such as Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee—all reported glitches, missed ballots and disenfranchised participants. Monitoring group Democracy North Carolina, part of a statewide, 700-member primary-watchdog team, pointed out how “thousands of [voters] faced serious problems because of election-law changes” during that March 1 primary.
On March 22, many voters in Arizona couldn’t cast ballots after long waits in polling-station lines. That was expected: In highly populated, diverse and Latino Maricopa County, the number of polling places had already shrunk from 200 to just 60.
In Wisconsin’s April 5 primary, it may get worse as voters prepare for a first joust with the state’s strict “approved voter ID” law, signed by notorious has-been Republican presidential contender Gov. Scott Walker.
If it’s this bad in the primary, then get really nervous about the general. There are omens across the electoral map, especially with strict voter-ID laws and other voter-suppression cocktails in key presidential battleground states.
“This is a real challenge,” NAACP President Cornell William Brooks tells The Root. “We know that in North Carolina, because of the draconian voting-suppression law, voter-ID laws could have had and will have a 5 percent impact on voting.”
Want to know how close that is? A recent Public Policy Polling survey of North Carolina shows (pdf) hypothetical Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton ahead by only 2 points in a matchup with Donald Trump.
“This will be the first major national election since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013,” Khalilah Brown-Dean, associate political science professor at Quinnipiac University, tells The Root. “The adoption of restrictive voter-ID requirements, the reduction of polling places and other measures have sharply reduced the number of minority voters who are eligible to participate.”
If we can even measure the exact number or percentages of people being electorally mugged. A new problem as bad as voter suppression is the current inability of civil rights organizations and the federal government to copiously track the extent of it. The Supreme Court’s landmark destruction of the “preclearance” tool in the Voting Rights Act—the provision that demanded Jim Crow-legacy jurisdictions submit election-process changes and their impact—effectively underresourced Justice Department monitoring capabilities.
It also disarmed civil rights groups. Faced with managing a mounting docket of election-discrimination cases as voter suppression takes effect, outfits such as the NAACP, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law and the National Urban League can’t keep up.
“It is impossible for us to fully replace the notice requirement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” Lawyers Committee Executive Director Kristen Clarke concedes to The Root. “Many voting changes occur at the local level, making them even harder to detect.”
“I don’t know we have the capacity to track [how bad voter suppression is during the primaries] beyond our affiliates,” says Cravins. “Once we hear about it, we have to figure out where can we do more. Are we tracking it? Yes … but we could do better.”