In 2008, 57 percent of Americans voted, and Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president. In the 2010 midterms, only 37 percent voted, and Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives, as well as 18 state legislatures. They learned their lesson. The following year, Republican legislators introduced 180 bills in 41 states designed to make it harder to vote. Nineteen states passed 25 laws that limited voting. They included onerous voter-identification laws and registration requirements, restrictions on early voting and increased penalties for volunteers who make mistakes in registration drives. Not coincidentally, the laws all had a foreseeably disproportionate impact on the young, the poor and minority voters — groups that tend to vote Democratic. As conservative strategist Paul Weyrich told the Republican National Convention some 30 years earlier: “I don’t want everybody to vote. . . . Our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Such a self-consciously partisan and highly coordinated strategy of vote suppression is, one might think, profoundly un-American. The nation was founded on the “consent of the governed.” “We the people” rejected monarchy for popular sovereignty. Yet as Michael Waldman deftly shows in “The Fight to Vote,” there have long been two competing strains in American politics.
On the one hand, the nation’s commitment to democracy is reflected in a long, albeit fitful, drive to expand the franchise to meet the ideal of equal voice upon which democracy’s legitimacy is premised. On the other hand, majorities have too often sought to exploit their temporary advantage to rig the rules to ensure their continued hold on power even after they have lost the people’s support.
As far back as the founding era, the Federalists, seeing a popular turn toward the Republicans, became “the first American ruling group, sensing demographic or political change, to try to withdraw democratic rights as an electoral tactic.” Southern whites perfected the practice in the aftermath of Reconstruction, using literacy tests, poll taxes and other means to disenfranchise virtually the entire black population and much of the poor white population to boot.
And today, Republicans in many states have pressed voter-identification laws, purportedly in response to a threat of in-person fraud, that impose document requirements that disproportionately bar poor and minority voters while simultaneously foreclosing Election Day registration. Proponents of these laws have cited almost no instances of actual in-person voting fraud. Indeed, given the serious criminal penalties for such conduct and the minimal likelihood that a single vote would make a difference, one judge noted that you “would have to be insane to commit voter impersonation fraud.” Yet it is a convenient excuse to deny the franchise to poor and minority voters.