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3 Ways GOP Will Double-Down on Its War On Voters in 2013

The party wants to gut federal voting law while enacting more state-based barriers.
 
 
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A curious and contradictory dynamic is unfolding these days on the voting rights front.

On the Left, groups like the NAACP and online news sites are saying that the GOP’s arsenal of voter suppression tactics in 2012 backfired and pushed iffy Obama backers to the polls by repeatedly telling them, "The GOP doesn’t want you to vote."

But on the Right, ideologues who’ve pushed for policing the polls are back promoting a new round of repressive voting measures. And this comes as half of rank-and-file Republicans are literally telling pollsters that leftwing ghosts—i.e., ACORN, the anti-poverty coalition that disbanded in 2010—somehow stole the 2012 election for Obama.

ACORN, of course, is shorthand for black and brown voters. That December poll, as well as recent declarations by leading conservative pundits that Mitt Romney might have won if non-white voters first saw themselves as “Americans” rather than as ethnic minorities, underscores that vast slices of the GOP are still driven by segregationist impulses.

And so Republican politicians in a handful of influential states have resumed their efforts to suppress perceived Democratic votes. They are hoping to gut the federal 1965 Voting Rights Act, which gives the Justice Department power to reject new voting rules in 16 states with histories of disenfranchising minority voters. They’re again beating the “voter fraud” drum, and Republican state leaders are launching new attacks on voting rules and referees—all in an effort to preserve GOP power.

1. Gutting the Voting Rights Act

Some progressives covering the 2012 election concluded that voting rights issues have not received as much attention since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. But before Election Day, that law was seen as endangered by Republican suits challenging the Justice Department’s power under the VRA to reject state changes in voting laws. Nonetheless, different federal courts cited the Act when rejecting recently enacted voting laws, from tougher voter ID laws in several states to redrawn district lines in Texas. (The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case in 2013. Three years ago, the Court said the VRA’s key enforcement provisions might be on shaky ground.)

Now some of the Right’s top opponents of the VRA have opened a new and predictably ugly front against the law and its defenders. They’re saying that counties that successfully opted out of the law—after meeting requirements to do so over a decade—not only failed to meet those legal standards, but were allowed to do so by Attorney General Eric Holder for political purposes, citing allegedly leaked DOJ documents.

And they are personally attacking a former DOJ Voting Section lawyer who is defending the VRA and helping counties opt out of the law, again, citing leaked documents. “He is a true believer in federal oversight of voting, and his clients are tools to keep it in place,” wrote J. Christian Adams, on PJMedia.com, adding that he “has a slimy history from his days at the Justice Department,” including losing a suit that cost taxpayers $87,000.  

This strategy of using DOJ leaks—which would violate federal privacy rules—to attack liberal civil rights lawyers is nothing new from the GOP’s leading troika of voter fraud agitators: J. Christian Adams, Hans von Spakovsky and John Fund.

Adams’ most recent attack is “misinformed on the facts and the law,” said two attorneys who represented a California county that met the VRA’s bailout standards. “Mr. Adams' implicit characterization of Merced County’s bailout as a sweetheart arrangement bears no relationship to actual facts. The County worked with USDOJ for more than two years on the bailout negotiations, including two in-person meetings in Washington, D.C.”

Moreover, for Adams—a former DOJ Voting Section attorney—to accuse another ex-DOJ Voting Section attorney costing taxpayers money because he lost some cases is hypocritical. Adams also pursued investigations that did not lead to convictions while at DOJ—for reasons that were not his fault. The personal attack is shrill but predictable from someone who has an ax to grind with DOJ.   

The larger charge—that Holder is corrupt—is nothing new in right-wing circles. Writing in National Review Online, von Spakovsky, another ex-Bush DOJ civil rights appointee, said that Holder’s DOJ has allowed New Hampshire towns to get out of VRA oversight without meeting the bail-out criteria. These attacks are meant to show that the DOJ’s oversight of voting is more politicized than a matter of protecting minorities.

“The Justice Department is acting in a highly unusual, and likely unlawful, manner in New Hampshire,” von Spakovsky wrote. “Once again, it’s a Voting Rights Act case.”

These attacks on the VRA resume a fight that was interrupted by the 2012 election. You might think that the GOP’s recent record on voter suppression—including losing almost every related lawsuit it filed in 2012—would show that the federal law was still needed, especially in states with growing minority populations. Ironically, that reality is further underscored by the next post-election trend—a spate of new laws sought by Republicans to again reshape voting rules to their liking.

2. More GOP Power Grabs

This month, a federal appeals court heard arguments over whether a recent Texas law that imposed some of the most stringent requirements in the U.S. on voter registration drives was unconstitutional. Texas is 46th among states when it comes to the share of eligible voters who are registered, but that has not stopped its Republican leadership from trying to shut down registration drives. The law was blocked in August for the rest of the presidential campaign, but this political fight is far from over. 

“The Texas regime is restrictive—and uniquely so,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Gregg Costa, when suspending it this summer. “[No] other state of which this Court is aware has gone as far as Texas in creating a regulatory web that controls so many aspects of third-party voter registration.”  

Since the fall election, a handful of equally regressive proposals have emerged from powerful GOP state politicians. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has asked his state legislature to give his office new powers to search and prosecute suspected cases of voter fraud. The Kansas City Star severely criticized that proposal, calling Koback “the secretary of distractions,” saying, “there is so little evidence that it actually takes place. In Kansas, as elsewhere, documented cases of voter fraud are few and far between.”  

In Wisconsin, the state Senate’s incoming Republican majority leader said he would like to gut what arguably is the best state oversight board running elections and campaign finance issues in the country. He would like to replace the retired state judges who sit on the non-partisan Government Accountability Board with political appointees. Meanwhile, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he wants to end that state’s Election Day registration, which quickly was followed up by proposed legislation to do so.

And in Pennsylvania, that state’s Republican Senate Majority Leader is seeking support for a bill to turn that state’s winner-take-all allocation of presidential Electoral College votes into one that would allocate the state’s 18 votes proportionately. If that were in place this past November, Mitt Romney would have won eight votes rather than zero. That proposal, like the state’s new voter ID law—was suspended by the courts for the November election—but is clearly intended to help the Republican nominee in 2016.

3. The Blame Game Continues

As Public Policy Polling found in early December, Republicans are “not handling the election results well,” with 49 percent believing that a defunct anti-poverty coalition, ACORN, was responsible for stealing the 2012 election for Obama. We could say that deeply mistaken conclusion comes from too many people watching Fox News, but it is probably more accurate to say that a good many Republicans don’t trust non-white voters. A recent commentary by boomer rocker Ted Nugent says that people on welfare should lose their voting rights, suggesting certain anti-democratic attitudes run deep.

In Florida, one of several presidential swing states where thousands of voters waited for hours to cast a ballot, the state’s extremely Republican secretary of state is leading what he says will be an inquiry into what caused the long lines. It’s doubtful that he will identify numerous changes proposed by the GOP and enacted into law in recent years, such as limiting the number of early voting sites. Florida’s Democrats have vowed to keep the issue alive and put the blame back on the GOP as they push for reforms.

And in Virginia, Mark Cole, the Republican chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, has proposed a bill he says will combat possible voter fraud by limiting the forms of ID that voters can show at the polls to get a ballot. Under the Holder Justice Department and federal Voting Rights Act, the state agreed to add current utility bills, bank statements, government checks or pay stubs that show a person’s address to a package of 2012 voting law changes, the Roanoke Times pointed out in an editorial criticizing Cole’s pre-filed bill for the 2013 General Assembly.   

Stepping back, the big picture as the dust settles on the 2012 election is that little seems to be changing. The GOP still doesn’t want every eligible voter to cast a ballot and is taking steps to create new barriers. Democrats are pushing back on new Republican proposals, but after being swept in the 2010 midterms, may not have the votes in state legislatures to stop them. Meanwhile, new and restrictive laws that were suspended during the 2012 cycle are returning to court—or being challenged anew at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Telling likely Democratic voters that the GOP doesn’t want you to vote may have been a good get-out-the-vote strategy in 2012. But it’s hardly a sign that civil rights are growing in America 50 years after the heyday of the voting rights movement.  

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, the low-wage economy, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).