Strange gift from the courts


By ROSS DOUTHAT

New York Times News Service

Back in the days when Republicans were reading polls through rose-colored glasses and imagining a Mitt Romney landslide, one of their most plausible arguments was that many pollsters were simply misreading the likely composition of the electorate. There was no way, this theory ran, that core Democratic constituencies would turn out at the same rates as in 2008, when Obamamania was at its peak. Instead, 2012 was set up to be what the conservative writer Ben Domenech called an “undertow election,” in which reduced turnout among young voters and minorities would drag the incumbent down to defeat.

This expectation turned out to be wrong on two counts. First, Republicans faced an unexpected (though in hindsight, predictable) undertow of their own, as many conservative-leaning, working-class white voters looked at what Mitt Romney had to offer and simply stayed home.

Second, instead of declining as expected after the history-making election of 2008, African-American turnout may have actually risen again in 2012. When the Census Bureau released its turnout analysis last month, it showed blacks voting at higher rates than whites for the first time in the history of the survey.

If you believe Chief Justice John Roberts’ more overheated liberal critics, last week’s Supreme Court decision invalidating a portion of the Voting Rights Act is designed to make sure African-American turnout never hits these highs again. The ruling will allow a number of (mostly Southern) states to change voting laws without the Justice Department’s pre-approval, which has liberals predicting a wave of Republican-led efforts to “suppress” minority votes — through voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting and other measures.

These predictions overstate the ruling’s impact on state election rules, which can still be challenged under other provisions of the Voting Rights Act and other state and federal laws. But it is possible that the decision will boost the existing Republican enthusiasm for voter ID laws, and hasten the ongoing, multistate push for their adoption.

If so, though, the Roberts Court may have actually handed the Democratic Party a political gift.

How so? Well, to begin with, voter identification laws do not belong to the same moral or legal universe as Jim Crow. Their public purpose, as a curb to fraud, is potentially legitimate rather than nakedly discriminatory, and their effects are relatively limited. As Roberts’ majority opinion noted, the voter registration gap between whites and blacks in George Wallace’s segregationist Alabama was 50 percentage points. When my colleague Nate Silver looked at studies assessing the impact of voter ID laws, he estimated that they tended to reduce turnout by around 2 percent — and that reduction crosses racial lines, rather than affecting African-Americans exclusively.

A 2 percent dip is still enough to influence a close election. But voter ID laws don’t take effect in a vacuum: As they’re debated, passed and contested in court, they shape voter preferences and influence voter enthusiasm in ways that might well outstrip their direct influence on turnout. They inspire registration drives and education efforts; they help activists fund-raise and organize; they raise the specter of past injustices; they reinforce a narrative that their architects are indifferent or hostile to minorities.

This, I suspect, is part of the story of why African-American turnout didn’t fall off as expected between 2008 and 2012. By trying to restrict the franchise on the margins, Republican state legislators handed Democrats a powerful tool, and motivated voters who might otherwise have lost some of their enthusiasm after “Yes We Can” gave way to a stagnant economy.

A lengthy battle over voting rules and voting rights seems almost precision-designed to help the Obama-era Democratic majority endure once President Barack Obama has left the Oval Office. Liberal demagogy notwithstanding, voter ID laws aren’t a way for Republicans to turn the clock back and make sure that it’s always 1965. But they are a good way for Republicans to ensure that African-Americans keep voting like it’s always 2008.

 

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