A pervasive sense of racial victimization has afflicted conservatives during the Obama years — the feeling that they are beset by a combination of false accusations of racism and actual anti-white racial animus that they dare not denounce lest they trigger still more false accusations of racism. That bundle of grievances resurfaced last week when North Carolina Republicans passed sweeping restrictions on voting rights, and Hillary Clinton declared in a speech, “Anyone who says that racial discrimination is no longer a problem in American elections must not be paying attention.” Cast once again as the heirs to the political tradition of the segregated South, conservatives have lashed back. It is certainly true that modern Republican vote suppression pales in comparison with the pre-1965 version, in method and scale, to the point where equating the two is absurd. Segregated states used violence and “literacy tests” to disenfranchise the vast majority of the black population. The modern analogue instead works around the margins. Nobody is forcibly prohibited from voting. Instead, bureaucratic hurdles discourage some small share of disproportionately Democratic voters from voting. Life can be hectic, time is short, there are kids and jobs, paperwork is a hassle — Republican election policy is to use these weapons to gain a few percentage points here and there. People with less money have less flexibility at work and less ability to navigate government paperwork requirements. It’s far, far less vicious than Jim Crow, and conservatives are justified in taking umbrage at the easy, frequent equations between the two that pervade liberal discourse.
But conservatives are not content to merely defend the party’s practices as “now 90 percent less evil!” They want to defend Republican vote suppression as a positive good, utterly untainted by racial or even partisan bias. Rich Lowry accuses Clinton of playing the race card; Jonathan Tobin denounces “fake outrage”; a bizarre, rambling National Review editorial calls objections to North Carolina’s laws “bunk.”
All three focus their defense on North Carolina’s requirement that voters have photographic identification, which they present as a rational response to voter fraud. This requirement places an additional burden on eligible voters who don’t have a driver’s license, who are disproportionately nonwhite. In order to vote, they have to go about finding alternate identification, adding another layer of hassle and potential confusion to the voting process. National Review sneers, “In general, Americans are very handy when it comes to acquiring free things issued by the government … oldsters manage to sign themselves up for Social Security and Medicare,” so we should assume they’ll jump through whatever administration hurdles are laid before them. But voting isn’t a “thing,” and, unlike social insurance, it has no financial value.