In the 1964 presidential elections, a young political operative named Bill guarded a largely African-American polling place in South Phoenix, Arizona like a bull mastiff. Bill was a legal whiz who knew the ins and outs of voting law and insisted that every obscure provision be applied, no matter what. He even made those who spoke accented English interpret parts of the constitution to prove that they understood it. The lines were long, people fought, got tired or had to go to work, and many of them left without voting. It was a notorious episode long remembered in Phoenix political circles.
It turned out that it was part of a Republican Party strategy known as “Operation Eagle Eye”, and “Bill” was future Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. He was confronted with his intimidation tactics in his confirmation hearings years later, and characterised his behaviour as simple arbitration of polling place disputes. In doing so, he set a standard for GOP dishonesty and obfuscation surrounding voting rights that continues to this day.
This week, in one of its greatest acts of elective chutzpah yet, Republicans in the state of Pennsylvania set forth a plan to split the state’s electoral votes for president proportionally by congressional district. This is not illegal, or even unprecedented. Two other states have this system. And some people have been arguing for years that the whole country should abolish the Electoral College altogether in order to avoid such undemocratic messes as the 2000 election. Many of them have settled on the idea of all states simultaneously adopting the system of alloting electoral votes proportionally instead of winner-take-all as a sort of compromise. But that’s not what’s happening here.