Op-Ed: The Democrats’ demographic firewall is under attack

North Carolina NAACP president Rev. William Barber is surrounded by supporters in Richmond, Va. on June 21 during a news conference held to discuss North Carolina's voting laws.
(Steve Helber / Associated Press)

“Brexit” seemed like a warning. Many in the United States saw a terrifying picture of nativist populism prevailing against a nation’s better angels. Was this what America would look like in November? Would we wake up to find President-elect Donald Trump? But just as the panic set in, political commentators noted that although Brexit and Trump supporters might mirror each other in their virulent anti-immigrant stances and zealotry to “take our country back,” a key demographic difference sets the two nations apart: Britain’s voting population is 92% white, the U.S.’ only 67%. America’s racial and ethnic minorities, some argued, would form a “firewall” — one that the U.K. just doesn’t have — to prevent the nativists from staging a virtual coup.

Comforting as that may seem, America’s demographic firewall has been under attack. And as we approach November, we find it severely weakened.

Ever since Barack Obama’s election as president, and the surge of black, Latino, Asian and low-income citizens to the polls that propelled him to the White House, the Republican Party has worked feverishly to suppress the vote of minorities and the poor. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County vs. Holder, which crippled the Voting Rights Act, aided and abetted the GOP’s efforts.


Of course Republicans insist that disenfranchisement is not their intent. They claim, instead, that these laws are necessary to stop rampant voter fraud. But that assertion does not align with the facts. A GOP-sponsored database, Crosscheck, which is designed to cull through voter registration files from 28 states, analyzed 84 million records and found only 14 instances of possible voter impersonation. In Wisconsin, “proven fraud actually amounted to 0.0007 percent of all votes.” In fact, law professor Justin Levitt uncovered that from 2000 to 2014, there were only 31 instances of possible voter fraud out of 1 billion votes cast nationwide. Impersonating a voter to steal an election is not the issue. Disenfranchisement is.

Over the last few years Republican legislatures have moved to require specific types of voter ID that disproportionately affect minorities and the poor. In Texas, concealed weapons permits are acceptable, student IDs are not. Alabama rejects IDs issued by the public housing authority. As the NAACP has noted, nationwide, 25% of African Americans and 16% of Latinos, compared with 8% of whites, do not have the correct form of ID now demanded by Republican-dictated laws.

GOP lawmakers have also severely limited the ability to obtain an acceptable ID. Alabama shut down motor vehicle department offices in counties that had sizable African American populations. Only after a thunderous outcry did the Republican governor relent and agree to open the license bureaus — for one day a month. All this in a state where, by its own estimates, 250,000 to 500,000 registered voters lack a driver’s license or other acceptable ID under the law.

In Texas, 15% of voting-age Latinos without government-issued photo IDs live in counties where there are no driver’s license offices. In fact, as the U.S. Department of Justice noted, “Texas has DMV offices in only eighty-one of 254 counties in the state, with some voters needing to travel up to 250 miles to obtain a new voter ID.” Texas’ suite of laws, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, “impacts more than 600,000 registered voters and 1 million eligible voters.”

The results have been devastating across the United States. A recent study by political scientists at UC San Diego found that in elections held between 2008 to 2012 in states with strict voter ID laws “turnout among Democrats in general elections dropped an estimated 7.7 percentage points, while Republican turnout dropped 4.6 percentage points.” Even more telling, strong liberals’ voter turnout rates plummeted 10.7 percentage points, whereas the decline for strong conservatives was only 2.8%.

IDs, however, are just one quill in the arsenal. In Ohio, the literacy test made a stunning reappearance. Under Republican Gov. John Kasich, the state required voters to fill out absentee and provisional ballots by hand. If poll workers find any error, regardless of how minor, or if the ballot is completed in cursive, they throw out the vote. This process affected nearly 12% of those ballots in the 2014 and 2015 elections.


Kansas, meanwhile, suspended the voting rights of 30,000 citizens, illegally demanding documentary proof of U.S. citizenship. Tellingly, nine of the 10 regions with the highest percentages of suspended voters were urban.

In all, 36 GOP-controlled states have resurrected some form of poll tax, literacy test or other Jim Crow-like disenfranchisement mechanism. In their more candid moments, Republicans have even acknowledged that their intention is to diminish the power of Democratic voters.

In Ohio, the top elections administrator admitted that literacy tests and other new voter rules ... were not applied to white rural counties.

In Wisconsin, Republican state senators were just “giddy” at the prospect of snuffing out the votes coming from Milwaukee and Madison. In Florida, a leading Republican confessed that his party eliminated Sunday as an early voting day because that’s when black churches bring their congregations to the polls. In Ohio, the top elections administrator admitted that literacy tests and other new voter rules, while vigorously enforced in Cleveland, Dayton and other cities, were not applied to white rural counties.

As the Brookings Institute has noted, minorities’ high turnout at the polls, especially that of African Americans, determined the outcome of the 2012 election. Their Republican-created absence could have the same effect in 2016, only with a very different result.

Four of seven key swing states in the upcoming election, as well as North Carolina, Indiana and Wisconsin, which were crucial in either 2008 or 2012, have Republican-sponsored disenfranchisement statutes in place. We’ve already seen a dress rehearsal for what might happen in November. The midterm 2014 gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections in Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and Alabama were all decided in favor of Republicans by a margin smaller than the number of disenfranchised voters in each state.

When the GOP launched its war against voting, of course it didn’t know about Donald Trump. Party elites figured they were helping one of their own win the presidency — not a four-time bankrupt businessman and reality TV host, a man who has trolled so deeply in the underbelly of American society that Neo-Nazis and Klansmen openly embrace him. If the #NeverTrump movement is in earnest, if establishment Republicans are as horrified by Trump as they claim, then — ironically — they must work to reenfranchise the very people they’ve worked to disenfranchise: African Americans and Latinos, overwhelming numbers of whom view Trump unfavorably.

To rebuild the firewall that protects us from nativism, Republicans in Congress must first support the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, which identifies jurisdictions that have mounted discriminatory laws, and provides judicial and federal oversight to protect the rights of minority voters. Second, Republican governors and legislatures must undo their voter suppression laws. Though that might sound like political suicide, it is in fact an act of political courage — of putting “country above party.”

That type of fortitude is not unprecedented. In the face of an open revolt by Southern Democrats, President Truman signed an executive order desegregating the military. By doing so, he risked losing the 1948 election to either Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond or Republican Thomas Dewey. Likewise, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he understood that the Democratic Party would no longer control the South. But he did it anyway.

Should Republicans help racial minorities exercise the right to vote in November, their candidate will surely lose the White House. They should do it anyway.

Carol Anderson is the Samuel Candler Dobbs professor and chair of African American Studies at Emory University and the author ofWhite Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide.”

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