Shortly after the United States Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Republican state lawmakers began a calculated assault on the ballot box at the expense of Black and poor people across the nation; a coalition of civil and voting rights organizations fought back, primarily in the courts, against a wave of laws that restricted early voting, required photo IDs, limited pre-registration for 16- and 17 year-olds and closed polling centers.
Now critics of those laws say that those measures may have tipped the November 8 presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor.
Ari Berman, a political reporter and investigative journalist with “The Nation,” calls the GOP’s attack on voting rights the most under-reported story of 2016 and his reporting during the election campaign encapsulates the fallout from Republican lawmakers’ relentless and sustained voter suppression tactics on the election.
“There were 25 debates during the presidential primaries and general election and not a single question about the attack on voting rights, even though this was the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act,” he noted in a post-election story. “Fourteen states had new voting restrictions in place for the first time in 2016 – including crucial swing states like Wisconsin and Virginia – yet we heard nary a peep about it on Election Day except from outlets like ‘The Nation.’ This was the biggest under-covered scandal of the 2016 campaign.”
Berman continued: “We’ll likely never know how many people were kept from the polls by restrictions like voter ID laws, cuts to early voting, and barriers to voter registration. But at the very least this should have been a question that many more people were looking into. For example, 27,000 votes currently separate Trump and Clinton in Wisconsin, where 300,000 registered voters, according to a federal court, lacked strict forms of voter ID. Voter turnout in Wisconsin was at its lowest levels in 20 years and decreased 13 percent in Milwaukee, where 70 percent of the state’s African-American population lives, according to Daniel Nichanian of the University of Chicago.”
Rev. Dr. William Barber II has called his home state of North Carolina “ground zero for voter suppression.”
“The court ruled on the most sweeping, retrogressive voter suppression bill that we have seen since the 19th century and since Jim Crow, and the worst in the nation since the Shelby decision,” said Barber, the president of the North Carolina state branch of the NAACP and also one of the lead plaintiffs in lawsuit against the state of North Carolina in a case that led to a federal court striking down the law. “The ruling in North Carolina was intentional discrimination of the highest order. They were retrogressing racially through redistricting. Over the past two election cycles, North Carolina has had an unconstitutionally constituted General Assembly. We should be appalled that anyone could rule that long.
The macro question is that after Shelby, we’re in a different place in that there was no protection for civil rights. Shelby took us back across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. If preclearance was in place, they wouldn’t have passed these laws. They spent between $5 million – $6 million fighting us. To have the loss of the Voting Rights Act is an affront to the country.”
Berman said North Carolina is a case study for how Republicans have institutionalized voter suppression at every level of government and made it the new normal within the GOP. He fears the same thing could soon happen in Washington when Trump assumes power.
Going forward, Scott Simpson, the director of media and campaigns for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that civil rights groups have a daunting, but not impossible task before them.
“The important thing to note about this election is that it started in June 2013,” he said. “For all the laws, statewide and locally, the vast majority, the wheels were set in motion well before Election Day.”
Simpson was referring to the raft of voter suppression laws passed by Republican lawmakers in a number of states in the aftermath of the 2013 Supreme Court decision to invalidate a key section of the landmark Voting Rights Act; Wisconsin, Georgia, Texas, Kansas and North Carolina were among those states that passed laws that made it harder to vote.
“It’s so clear that the loss of the Voting Rights Act had an impact on the election,” Simpson explained. “People were scared off, turned away from polling places, saw long lines and left without voting and with all the changes, some were left confused. It was a travesty. In North Carolina, you had a razor-thin election and in Wisconsin you had a very close election, because of the voter ID law.”
Simpson continued: “You shave a couple of percentage points in an election, say one or two percent, and there will be an impact.”
Simpson said the recent election was framed in rhetoric and racial hostility “and we now have the Department of Justice with a man in charge who opposes the Voting Rights Act.”
Berman said that we can already glimpse how a Trump administration will undermine voting rights, based on the people he nominated to top positions, those he has advising him, and his own statements.
Berman wrote: “[Trump’s] pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, wrongly prosecuted Black civil rights activists for voter fraud in Alabama in the 1980s, called the Voting Rights Act ‘a piece of intrusive legislation,’ and praised the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 saying that “if you go to Alabama, Georgia or North Carolina, people aren’t being denied the vote because of the color of their skin.”