North Carolina recently passed what can only be described as an omnibus voter suppression law, including a whole range of provisions from demanding photo IDs to cutting back early voting to restricting registration drives, every single one of which is likely to make it harder for minorities, poor people, and/or young people to register and vote. It’s not just the Tar Heel state—across the South, states that have been freed by the Supreme Court from their prior obligation under the Voting Rights Act to get permission from the Justice Department before changing their voting laws are moving with all deliberate speed to make voting as difficult as possible. Since these are Republican states, these laws are going to pass (some have already), and I think it’s worth addressing what is fast becoming the main argument Republicans use to defend them. They’ve always said that their only intent was to ensure the “integrity” of elections and protect against voter impersonation, a virtually nonexistent problem. But they recently realized that they’ve got a new, and seemingly compelling, piece of evidence they can muster against charges of voter suppression. Many voter-ID laws were passed over the last few years (the Supreme Court upheld voter ID in 2008), and as Republicans will tell you (see for example here or here), turnout among blacks hasn’t declined, and in some cases has gone up. Blacks even turned out at a slightly higher rate than whites overall in the 2012 election. As Rand Paul recently said, “I don’t think there is objective evidence that we’re precluding African-Americans from voting any longer.”
So what’s wrong with this argument? The voter suppression efforts have been largely unsuccessful because civil rights groups and Democrats have responded to them by redoubling their efforts to get people to the polls. The backlash has essentially brought turnout among African Americans back up to what it would have been without the voter-ID laws, even though in practice, it meant that some people who would have otherwise voted were prevented from doing so, while other people who might have stayed home managed to get to the polls.
So what Republicans are essentially saying is, we’re trying to suppress the votes of black people, but we aren’t succeeding, so how can you criticize us? It’s like me slashing your tires on Saturday, then when you go out and buy four new ones and get them installed in time for Monday morning, I say, “You got to work on time, didn’t you? So that just shows I wasn’t trying to do you any harm.”