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The GOP's Voter Suppression Strategy

How voter ID laws inspired progressive voters to fight stronger and turn out in higher numbers.
 
 
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The following article first appeared on the Nation.com. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

In a little-noticed yet significant development on election day, Minnesota voters defeated a constitutional amendment that would have required them to present a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot. It was the first time voters had rejected a voter ID ballot initiative in any state.

In May 2011, a poll showed that 80 percent of Minnesotans supported a photo ID law. “Nearly everyone in the state believed a photo ID was the most common-sense solution to the problem of voter fraud,” says Dan McGrath, executive director of Take Action Minnesota, a progressive coalition that led the campaign against the amendment. “We needed to reframe the issue. We decided to never say the word ‘fraud.’ Instead we would only talk about the cost, complications and consequences of the amendment.” According to the coalition, the photo ID law would have disenfranchised eligible voters (including members of the military and seniors) dumped an unfunded mandate on counties and imperiled same-day voter registration. On election day, 52 percent of Minnesotans opposed the amendment. 

The amendment’s surprising defeat has ramifications beyond Minnesota. “There’s been an assumption of political will for restricting the right to vote,” says McGrath. “No, there’s not.” The amendment backfired on the GOP. “Voter ID did not drive the conservative base to turn out in the way that Republicans thought it would,” adds McGrath. “Instead, it actually inspired progressive voters, who felt under siege, to fight stronger and turn out in higher numbers.” The minority vote nearly doubled in the state, compared with 2008. Minnesota was a microcosm of the national failure of the GOP’s voter suppression strategy. 

After the 2010 election, in more than a dozen states Republicans passed voting restrictions aimed at reducing the turnout of Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant”—young voters, African-Americans and Hispanics. The strategy didn’t work as intended. Ten major restrictive voting laws were blocked in court over the past year, and turnout among young, black and Latino voters increased as a share of the electorate in 2012 compared with 2008. The youth vote rose from 18 to 19 percent, and the minority vote increased from 26 to 28 percent; both went heavily for Obama. 

A backlash against voter suppression added to this increased youth and minority turnout. “When they went after big mama’s voting rights, they made all of us mad,” said the Rev. Tony Minor, Ohio coordinator of the African American Ministers Leadership Council. The black vote rose in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia, while the Latino vote grew in Florida, Colorado and Nevada. “There were huge organizing efforts in the black, Hispanic and Asian communities, more than there would’ve been, as a direct result of the voter suppression efforts,” says Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions, a Latino polling and research firm. 

In late September, Project New America, a Denver center-left research group, tested more than thirty messages on “sporadic, less likely voters who lean Democratic” (which included young, black and Hispanic voters) to see what would motivate them to vote. “One of the most powerful messages across many different demographics was reminding people that their votes were important to counter the extremists who are kicking people off of voter rolls,” the group wrote in a post-election memo. 

The increase in voter turnout among these key demographics, however, doesn’t mean that voter suppression laws did not have an impact or would not have decided the election outcome if the race had been closer. Court rulings and voter education efforts limited the damage but didn’t stop it. A flood of horror stories poured in during early voting and on election day: voters waiting in line for seven hours in Florida, wrongly turned away for lack of photo ID in Pennsylvania, improperly forced to cast provisional ballots in Ohio. The day after the election, 600,000 early votes and provisional ballots remained uncounted in Arizona, most of them in heavily Latino Maricopa County. According to Hart Research Associates, black and Hispanic voters were two to three times more likely than whites to wait more than thirty minutes to cast their ballot.