Robinson: Voter ID laws’ purpose is now clear — and shameful

By Eugene Robinson

Every once in a while, the curtains part and we get a glimpse of the ugliest, most shameful spectacle in American politics: the Republican Party’s systematic attempt to disenfranchise African-Americans and other minorities with voter ID laws and other restrictions at the polls.

If you thought this kind of discrimination died with Jim Crow, think again. Fortunately, federal courts have blocked implementation of some of the worst new laws, at least for now. But the most effective response would be for black and brown voters to send the GOP a message by turning out in record numbers, no matter what barriers Republicans try to put in our way.

The ostensible reason for these laws is to solve a problem that doesn’t exist — voter fraud by impersonation. Four years ago, you may recall, a Republican Pennsylvania legislator let slip the real reason for his state’s new voter ID law: to “allow” Mitt Romney to win the state. In the end, he didn’t. But Republicans tried mightily to discourage minorities, most of whom vote Democratic, from going to the polls.

Now, thanks to documents that surfaced in a lawsuit, we have an even clearer and more egregious example of attempted disenfranchisement, this time in North Carolina. As The Washington Post reported, the documents show “that North Carolina GOP leaders launched a meticulous and coordinated effort to deter black voters, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.”

The story continues, “The law, created and passed entirely by white legislators, evoked the state’s ugly history of blocking African-Americans from voting — practices that had taken a civil rights movement and extensive federal intervention to stop.”

Post reporter William Wan backs up that tough assertion by quoting from the documents.

In one email, written while the GOP-controlled Legislature was crafting what has been called the most onerous voter ID law in the nation, a staffer asks for a breakdown of the 2008 voter turnout showing whether blacks and whites differed in their preference for early voting. In another email, a Republican lawmaker wants to know if Hispanic voters tend to vote outside their home precincts. In another, an aide to the House speaker asks for “a breakdown, by race, of those registered voters in your database that do not have a driver’s license number.”

Wan writes that “months later, the North Carolina Legislature passed a law that cut a week of early voting, eliminated out-of-precinct voting and required voters to show specific types of photo ID — restrictions that election board data demonstrated would disproportionately affect African-Americans and other minorities.”

Thankfully, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized the Legislature’s discriminatory intent and struck down the law. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory tried to appeal, but the Supreme Court refused to stay the lower court’s order — which means the law will not be in effect for this year’s election.

Federal courts have also struck down new voting restrictions in Texas, Wisconsin, Kansas and North Dakota. In all cases, the laws were enacted by Republican legislatures and governors. And in all cases, discriminatory impact on minority voters is at issue.

GOP officials defend these laws as necessary to protect the sanctity of the voting process. The judge in the Wisconsin case, however, found that “a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement.”

Some might argue that these laws are a matter of politics, not racism — that Republicans may be trying to discourage Democrats from the polls, but are not targeting minorities as such. That’s a distinction without a difference, however, given the GOP’s estrangement from minority voters.

And the North Carolina example clearly puts to rest any notion that these restrictions are colorblind. The law began as a simple 16-page bill mandating voter IDs. But in June 2013, while the legislation was still being worked on, the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which compelled Southern states with a history of voter discrimination to obtain Justice Department approval before making changes in election laws.

“Now we can go with the full bill,” the Republican chairman of the state Senate’s rules committee told reporters. The legislation grew to 57 pages, with new provisions that shortened early voting, eliminated same-day registration and took away counties’ ability to extend poll hours to accommodate long lines, among other curbs.

Republicans claim they want support from African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities. They don’t deserve the time of day until they stop this appalling effort to keep us from voting at all.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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