How the GOP’s War on Voting Backfired
The Nation // Ari Berman
The Nation // Ari Berman
Since the 2010 election, Republicans passed new voting restrictions in more than a dozen states aimed at reducing the turnout of Barack Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant”—young voters, African-Americans and Hispanics.
“This is not rocket science,” Bill Clinton said last year. “They are trying to make the 2012 electorate look more like the 2010 electorate than the 2008 electorate.” By pushing voter suppression laws, Republicans wanted the 2012 electorate to be older, whiter and more conservative than the young and diverse 2008 electorate.
But the GOP’s suppression strategy failed. Ten major restrictive voting laws were blocked in court and turnout among young, black and Hispanic voters increased as a share of the electorate relative to 2008.
Take a look at Ohio, where Ohio Republicans limited early voting hours as a way to decrease the African-American vote, which made up a majority of early voters in cities like Cleveland and Dayton. Early voting did fall relative to 2008 as a result of Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s cutbacks in early voting days and hours, but the overall share of the black electorate increased from 11 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2012. More than anything else, that explains why Barack Obama once again carried the state.
I spent the weekend before the election in black churches in Cleveland, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the GOP’s push to curtail the rights of black voters made them even more motivated to cast a ballot. “When they went after big mama’s voting rights, they made all of us mad,” said Reverend Tony Minor, Ohio coordinator of the African American Ministers Leadership Council. According to CBS News: "More African-Americans voted in Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida than in 2008."
The same thing happened with the Latino vote, which increased as a share of the electorate (from 9 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2012) and broke even stronger for Obama than in 2008 (from 67-31 in 2008 to 71-27 in 2012, according to CNN exit polling). The share of the Latino vote increased in swing states like Nevada (up 4 percent), Florida (up 3 percent) and Colorado (up 1 percent). Increased turnout and increased support for Obama among Latinos exceeded the margin of victory for the president in these three swing states.
We’re still waiting on the data to confirm this theory, but a backlash against voter suppression laws could help explain why minority voter turnout increased in 2012. “That’s an extremely reasonable theory to be operating from,” says Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions, a Latino-focused polling and research firm. “There were huge organizing efforts in the black, Hispanic and Asian community, more than there would’ve been, as a direct result of the voter suppression efforts.” Groups like the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and the Asian-American Legal Defense Fund worked overtime to make sure their constituencies knew their voting rights.
As Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic wrote:
If there is one thing this election has proven, if there is one thing I have come to know, it is that Americans don’t like it when their right to vote is threatened. The very people whose votes the Republicans sought to suppress came out to vote. In places like Akron and Orlando and Denver and Milwaukee, they came. They waited in long lines and endured the indignities of poll workers. Yet they were not cowed. Today is their day. A day when they can look at one another and appreciate that they are truly a part of the history of civil rights in this country.
There are, of course, major caveats to this theory. If voter ID laws had been on the books in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, turnout might’ve shifted in the Republicans’ favor, as the political science literature suggests. (Nate Silver predicted that Pennsylvania’s voter ID law would’ve provided a net 1.2 percent shift to Republican candidates.) We don’t know how many voters were disenfranchised by voter ID laws in states like Kansas and Tennessee or didn’t vote in Florida because of long lines or a felony conviction or were forced to cast a provisional ballot in Ohio that will not be counted. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act could be invalidated by the Supreme Court, which would be a devastating setback for voting rights, and new voting restrictions that were temporarily blocked in state courts could be ultimately upheld.
But, for now, the momentum is shifting away from the GOP when it comes to voting rights. For the first time, in Minnesota, voters defeated a photo ID ballot initiative.
The measure started with a double-digit lead, but opponents of voter ID were able to convince a purple-state electorate that such laws are unnecessary and discriminatory. This could be a harbinger of things to come in other swing states.
In a recent piece in The Nation, I wrote that voter suppression efforts have become the “new normal” in the GOP. Unless or until Republicans get serious about courting an increasingly diverse and younger electorate, they’ll continue to pass laws to undermine the political power of this growing constituency.
But they’ll do so at their own peril. Racial minorities made up 28 percent of the electorate in 2012, up from 26 percent in 2008, and voted 80 percent for Obama. “Romney matched the best performance among white voters ever for a Republican challenger—and yet he lost decisively in the Electoral College,” wrote Ron Brownstein of National Journal. Minorities also accounted for 45 percent of Obama’s total vote. That means that in the not-so-distant-future, a Democrat will be able to win the presidency without needing a majority of white votes in his or her own coalition. In a country with growing diversity, if one party is committed to expanding the right to vote and the other party is committed to restricting the right to vote, it’s not hard to figure out which one will ultimately be more successful.