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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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In-person early voting declined in Florida because of fewer early voting hours, compared with 2008. Florida voter registration dropped by 14 percent because of the twelve months in 2011–12 when the state shut down voter registration drives. The 1-866-Our-Vote hotline received more than 9,000 calls from Pennsylvanians on election day, many from voters wrongly told by poll workers that a photo ID was required in order to vote. Twice as many voters in Philadelphia as in 2008 had to cast provisional ballots because their names were missing from voter rolls. Of all the swing states, Pennsylvania had the sharpest drop in voter turnout, down by more than 7 percent from 2008, which could be attributable to confusion over its suspended voter ID law. 

The 2012 election was a case study in how not to run an election. New voting restrictions and confusion over recent court decisions exacerbated problems lingering since 2000: broken voting machines, an antiquated voter registration system, ungodly lines, misinformed poll workers and partisan election officials. 

Obama’s ad-lib on election night about long lines at the polls—“by the way, we have to fix that”—energized the movement for election reform. There are smart proposals in Congress, including the Voter Empowerment Act, but it’s unclear what the follow-through will be. The Help America Vote Act of 2002, a response to the 2000 fiasco in Florida, did little to remedy the nation’s election problems. For example, the US Election Assistance Commission, created by HAVA to help states run their elections, has no commissioners, executive director or general counsel, and hasn’t met publicly since 2011. Last year in Congress, Republicans tried to abolish the agency; Democrats have done little to resurrect it. Before Congress tries to pass sweeping election reform, it should take the baby step of getting an election commission back up and running. 

Despite Romney’s defeat, GOP-controlled states appear likely to press ahead with new voting restrictions. In Florida, for instance, Governor Rick Scott put his secretary of state—who supported controversial voting restrictions and an ill-considered voter purge—in charge of determining what went wrong with the election. He should start by interviewing his boss. Until conservatives start courting the increasingly diverse electorate, voter suppression will continue to be the party’s main response to demographic change. 

The GOP’s war on voting is far from dead. Just three days after the election, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a conservative challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which compels parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to clear election-related rule changes with the federal government. The case will likely be heard early next year. Veteran Court watchers believe the five conservative justices are prepared to overturn Section 5, which Attorney General Eric Holder has called the “keystone of our voting rights.” 

Voter suppression attempts over the past two years prove that Section 5 is still needed. Of the nine states covered fully by it, six have passed new voting restrictions since 2010. “The states that passed discriminatory voting laws were disproportionately covered by Section 5,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. The Justice Department successfully objected to restrictive voting laws in Florida, South Carolina and Texas under Section 5 this election cycle. And despite clear evidence of its necessity, the landmark act is under attack: it has been challenged more in the past two years than in the previous forty-five years combined, according to Columbia University Law School professor Nate Persily. 

Only a Supreme Court divorced from reality—which this Court may well be—would review the record on voting rights since Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 and conclude that a key pillar of the law is no longer needed. If anything, Section 5 should be expanded to include states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Losing Section 5 would greenlight the very kind of voter suppression that proved so unpopular in 2012.