The ongoing battle over voter rights—or, depending on your partisan persuasion, voter fraud—is on one level a struggle over whether it’s more important to ensure that the most people possible can vote, and that voting laws don’t have a disparate racial impact; or whether it’s more important to ensure the sanctity of the ballot box against errors, regardless of how that might inconvenience minorities, young people, or other groups. (One salient point here is that most restrictions—reducing early voting, closing polling locations, requiring specific photo ID—hurt minority turnout, while evidence of fraud is practically nonexistent.) On another level, though, it’s a battle about history: whether the restrictions being enacted in red states are part of a new struggle over civil rights, or whether the struggle for racial equality is completed and these news laws are totally different. Proponents of voter-ID laws understandably wish to distance themselves from their segregation-era predecessors, for both moral and political reasons. Officials in Shelby County v. Holder didn’t argue that racist voter suppression never happened; they argued that strenuous protections were no longer necessary. The Court agreed and struck down a requirement that certain jurisdictions submit any changes in voting laws to the Department of Justice to assess whether they were discriminatory.
The problem is that many of the tactics employed in the new voting-rights battle are exactly the same ones that the Voting Rights Act sought to root out. Take this in Jim Rutenberg’s long feature in The New York Times Magazine this weekend, reported from Pasadena, Texas:
With the political stakes rising, the mayor had made an unexpected move: He proposed a ballot initiative reducing the number of Council districts to 6 from 8, while adding two new at-large council seats that would now represent the entire city. At-large offices might seem more democratic, as they are selected by the entire city instead of only the people in one district. But because Hispanic turnout was so low in citywide elections, whites could outvote them every time. Under the new plan, the mayor’s majority would almost certainly be safe ….
[Republican Mayor Johnny] Isbell said his decision to change the city’s charter came from his long-held belief that at-large seats are better for the city. ‘‘The citizens are better served by having more than one person they can go to,’’ he told me, leaning forward in his rocker. ‘‘I’ve always believed that.’’