In the 1964 presidential elections, a young political operative named Bill guarded a largely African-American polling place in South Phoenix, Arizona like a bull mastiff. Bill was a legal whiz who knew the ins and outs of voting law and insisted that every obscure provision be applied, no matter what. He even made those who spoke accented English interpret parts of the constitution to prove that they understood it. The lines were long, people fought, got tired or had to go to work, and many of them left without voting. It was a notorious episode long remembered in Phoenix political circles.
It turned out that it was part of a Republican Party strategy known as “Operation Eagle Eye”, and “Bill” was future Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. He was confronted with his intimidation tactics in his confirmation hearings years later, and characterised his behaviour as simple arbitration of polling place disputes. In doing so, he set a standard for GOP dishonesty and obfuscation surrounding voting rights that continues to this day.
This week, in one of its greatest acts of elective chutzpah yet, Republicans in the state of Pennsylvania set forth a plan to split the state’s electoral votes for president proportionally by congressional district. This is not illegal, or even unprecedented. Two other states have this system. And some people have been arguing for years that the whole country should abolish the Electoral College altogether in order to avoid such undemocratic messes as the 2000 election. Many of them have settled on the idea of all states simultaneously adopting the system of alloting electoral votes proportionally instead of winner-take-all as a sort of compromise. But that’s not what’s happening here.
Suffice to say that the Republican move in Pennsylvania is not motivated by the idea of a more democratic method of electing presidents. Instead, it’s a cynical manoeuver to take advantage of redistricting to ensure that a state Obama will likely win will no longer be in play in the 2012 election. Nobody has ever had the nerve to do that before. Indeed, changing something so fundamental to our federal election system for craven short-term gain would have been unthinkable in the past. Not anymore.
As it happens, there has been pushback from Pennsylvania’s Republican members of congress, and as a result, the plan is unlikely to pass. It turns out that even though the plan might be helpful to the Republican presidential candidate, it could end up hurting Republican congressional candidates, because Democrats would be able to move resources to challenge them in their districts. But it’s notable that the idea that it would be injurious to our democratic system to go about changing the rules to suit the partisan configuration of the moment hasn’t been mentioned. This is all self-serving political expediency. Principles have nothing to do with it.
Voter intimidation and vote suppression had long been a part of Democratic politics in the South, in places where African-Americans had been granted an illusory right to vote. But as the South made its dramatic shift to the Republican Party in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, and as African-American voters in the North then shifted to the Democrats, the Republicans began to dominate the process and thus began the decades-long GOP project to suppress the vote. Along the way it has developed into a full-blown operation to undermine democracy in general, at whatever choke points are available.
According to a comprehensive report by the Center for Voting Rights in 2004, in the wake of Jesse Jackson’s successful mobilisation of black voters in the 1980s, the GOP power elite recognised that it could no longer rely on volunteers and crude local efforts, which were running afoul of the Voting Rights Act and ending up in front of judges. So a group of former lawyers in the Reagan administration created the Republican National Lawyers Association, which was characterised at the time as a sort of “Rotary Club for GOP Stalwarts” (and which also happened to provide continuing legal education credits). It became a combination of a professional bar association, a political law firm, an educational institute and an old boy network for Republican lawyers, many of whom concentrated their work for the group specifically on how to use voting laws for their partisan advantage.