In 2010, the Simpsons featured a news helicopter emblazoned with the logo: “FOX News: Not Racist, But #1 with Racists.” That slogan might be applied to today’s Republican Party, which in recent years has actively passed voting laws that make it harder for poor and minority voters to vote. Whether to label the Republican Party “racist” isn’t an academic exercise. The question is actually at the heart of lawsuits over the future of voting rights in Texas and North Carolina. It’s also a question with historical resonance, particularly on the eve of the Voting Rights Act’s 50th anniversary this week. The five-decade history of the Voting Rights Act is told masterfully in Ari Berman’s new book, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Berman starts around the time of the Selma, Alabama, marches, but unlike the movie Selma, Berman goes on to give us the rest of the history: the expansion of voting rights protections in 1970 and 1975 to include Latinos, Native Americans, and others over the objections of racists, many in the Democratic Party; the important 1982 rewriting of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, providing additional protections for minority voters nationally, and (now Chief Justice) John Roberts’ key role for the Reagan administration in unsuccessfully fighting against the expansion; hot disputes over voting rights in Florida in the 2000 election; the controversial renewal of the expiring “preclearance provisions” of the act in 2006 that continued to require states with a history of discrimination to get federal approval before changing their voting laws; and the ongoing “voting wars” that accelerated when Roberts led the court’s conservatives in striking down the 2006 preclearance renewal in Shelby County v. Holder.
Berman’s book, like Jim Rutenberg’s excellent cover story for the New York Times Magazine on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, views the struggles over voting rules primarily through the lens of race. And although that is an essential lens to apply, it downplays the growing role of partisan politics in this story, a partisan struggle that is having profound ramifications for the newest wave of court cases involving voting restrictions. Put simply, the Republican Party has reasons unrelated to racial animus to push new voting restrictions.
When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the Democratic Party was dominant in the South, and the Republican Party still had many liberals in its ranks. In part thanks to the Voting Rights Act, which was tremendously successful in fostering the registration and turnout of blacks in the South, the political parties began to realign. Today, the Republican Party is the party of conservatives, and in the South that means primarily white conservatives, and the Democratic Party is the party of liberals, and in the South that means primarily blacks.