As the Supreme Court appears ready to rubber-stamp Trump's citizenship question, the GOP's cynical power grab is on full display
You know how when you stumble upon certain movies, you just can’t help yourself and end up watching to the end—no matter how many times you’ve seen them before? Wednesday night that happened to me as I was channel surfing (note: that’s something done by people who haven’t yet cut the cord. It means you actually limit yourself to watching what other people have scheduled for you at a given time). Anyway, I stumbled onto Groundhog Day, and settled in for a not that long but definitely lustrous final 30 minutes.
Somewhat less pleasant, however, is realizing that our politics are very much like that movie. We see the same scenarios being replayed over and over when it comes to Republicans abusing the system and pushing the rules and boundaries beyond recognition in order to grab, hold, and enhance their power while Democrats, for the most part, eschew such methods out of greater respect for those same rules and that same system. This has gone on so long that it feels like even using the Groundhog Day metaphor to talk about politics feels like something out of Groundhog Day—something we’ve done over and over. We’re caught in a loop inside another loop: a meta loop-de-loop, if you will.
This is where we stand right now with the Supreme Court apparently on the verge of rubber-stamping yet another Trump administration outrage—namely, the attempt to add a question about citizenship to the U.S. census for the first time since 1950. Despite the White House’s flimsy claims that they are doing so in order to aid enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, in actuality this represents a blatant attempt to increase Republican numbers in state and federal legislatures by suppressing responses from all immigrants. That includes documented immigrants who are eligible to vote or soon will be, communities that deliver a majority of their votes to Democrats. Daily Kos’ own elections expert Stephen Wolf noted that a Trump victory at the Supreme Court in this matter ...
… could have profoundly disastrous effects for democracy and fair political representation … [E]xperts fear that the question would have a chilling effect that intimidates millions of people in immigrant communities into not participating. That could in turn turbocharge a new wave of hyperpartisan Republican gerrymandering nationwide, since the census is the bedrock foundation of redistricting.
This latest move is far from the first time Republicans have pulled something along these lines, and each one builds on the advantage gained by previous efforts (see: Garland, Merrick). Without the illegitimate majority conservatives now possess on the Supreme Court, this census gambit would have been rightfully rejected, as it was by three different lower courts. One Maryland judge wrote that the inclusion of the citizenship question was unconstitutional because it would “unreasonably compromis[e] the distributive accuracy of the Census.” All three courts found that Trump Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross—under whose authority the question was added—broke the law by violating the Administrative Procedures Act when he acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" fashion.
But if the Supreme Court, with five Republican appointees ever ready to go along with the electoral interests of their party, rules that adding the census question was okay, then that will become one more brick in the wall Trump is building to cement Republican power across our country.
Then there’s the issue of gerrymandering. Although Democrats have, in a few states, tried to gerrymander districts to their advantage as well, Republicans have done so far more extensively and with much greater efficacy. They have done so all over the country, in every region, fixing legislative boundaries in state and federal elections. An Associated Press study found the following effects on the 2018 elections:
The AP’s analysis indicates that Republicans won about 16 more U.S. House seats than would have been expected based on their average share of the vote in congressional districts across the country. In state House elections, Republicans’ structural advantage might have helped them hold on to as many as seven chambers that otherwise could have flipped to Democrats, according to the analysis.
The AP examined all U.S. House races and about 4,900 state House and Assembly seats up for election last year using a statistical method of calculating partisan advantage that is designed to flag cases of potential political gerrymandering. A similar analysis also showed a GOP advantage in the 2016 elections.
We have seen Republicans act in similar ways, with similar goals, in implementing so-called Voter ID laws—which, thanks to studies, for example, from Texas and Michigan, we know have a greater impact on Democratic voters as well as disparate impacts on black and Latino voters. In North Carolina, after a series of such laws were implemented, supporters of voting rights went to court and won a major victory. The U.S. Court of Appeals decision in the North Carolina case made clear just what Republicans were trying to do, stating that their attempt to suppress the vote “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
The kind of voter impersonation fraud that voter ID laws claim to address is so rarethat, essentially, it does not exist.
The Brennan Center’s seminal report on this issue, The Truth About Voter Fraud, found that most reported incidents of voter fraud are actually traceable to other sources, such as clerical errors or bad data matching practices. The report reviewed elections that had been meticulously studied for voter fraud, and found incident rates between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent. Given this tiny incident rate for voter impersonation fraud, it is more likely, the report noted, that an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”
Republicans have also sought to rig and suppress the vote by making it harder to register voters. For example, Florida—perhaps the most important swing state in presidential elections—passed a law in 2012 that imposed new, significant penalties on voter registration groups for various missteps. Just this month, both houses of the Tennessee legislature passed an even more draconian law, as Cliff Albright, who co-founded the Black Voters Matter Fund, explained:
The bill in the senate would create some of the most aggressive regulations on large-scale voter registration in the nation — like civil penalties for groups that unintentionally file incomplete voter registration forms. It would impose criminal sanctions on organizers who don’t attend training sessions run by local officials and on groups that fail to mail in voter registration forms in a short 10-day window.
Things like typos and missing entries are inevitable. That’s why there are already checks and balances; the election commission verifies voter information against state databases. This doesn’t create an unmanageable burden on state officials, nor does it require a draconian bill. Why don’t lawmakers make voter registration automatic, instead of making it much more difficult?
This is a clear attack on the successful efforts to mobilize black voters during the 2018 midterm elections. Close to 90,000 black voters were registered by the Tennessee Black Voter Project, led by the activist Tequila Johnson and the Equity Alliance, which partner with my organization, the Black Voters Matter Fund.
Tennessee already ranks in the bottom five states when it comes to voter turnout. This law, if the governor signs it, certainly won’t help. As former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has attested, other examples of Republican efforts to suppress Democratic voters, and the votes of Americans of color in particular, abound.
On a related note, our elections are even less safe because The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote (but won the election with Russia’s help) apparently sticks his fingers in his ears anytime one of his staff tries to tell him that our government should, you know, actually care about foreign adversaries interfering in our election processes via hacking or other nefarious methods. The Republican Party has so abandoned any pretense of principle on this that they won’t even agree that they will refrain from using hacked or otherwise stolen information against their opponents in future elections. Why should they? The president’s lawyer said, regarding the use in 2016 of materials stolen by Russia: “There's nothing wrong with taking information from Russians … Who's to say it's even illegal?”
Democrats, on the other hand, don’t seem to know how to play hardball. Even when principle is on their side, they refrain from utilizing the power they have and taking measures that would, in addition to enhancing democracy, enhance their own power.
Take the example of D.C. statehood. Did you know that in 2009-10, Democrats could have created a new state out of most of the territory of the District of Columbia, i.e., everything but the U.S. Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court, the National Mall, and the national parks and monuments located in the vicinity? Such a new state would almost certainly have elected a Democrat to the House, as well as two Democrats to the U.S. Senate.
Creating a new state, rather than trying to admit D.C. en toto as a state, would obviate the need for a constitutional amendment. Although some right-wing critics have argued otherwise, this plan would require only a majority of both houses of Congress. Democrats could have done this at any point in 2009 or 2010.
Think about what that would have meant. Two more Democratic senators would have meant, after the election of Alabama’s Doug Jones in 2017, that control of the Senate would have swung to the Democrats. That would likely have meant no Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, presuming Justice Kennedy had still retired. To square the circle of this post, that would have meant only four Republican-appointed justices would now be deciding whether the census question on citizenship is legitimate, not to mention cases on gerrymandering and other matters relating to the integrity of our electoral process.
Trump’s attempt to use the census as a political weapon is just the most recent example of what his party has done time and time again, in particular since the 1990s. Republicans understand how to use whatever level of power they hold at present to change the rules of the game in order to have more power going forward. There are no principles involved here other than the naked pursuit of power for its own sake. What Republicans are doing undermines and could potentially destroy our democracy by thwarting the ability of the people to have the representation they should have based on their own voting preferences. It represents an electoral theft as surely as does stuffing a ballot box.
That’s why, if Democrats do win in 2020, they must not only implement their policy agenda, but drastically reform the rules of our elections to ensure fair and full representation, to guarantee the right to vote for all eligible voters, and to take measures to increase, not reduce, voter participation rates. And they should definitely implement the aforementioned plan for D.C. statehood. Democrats have to live up to their party’s name, and fight for our democracy. Its legitimacy is at stake.