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Is the GOP retreating on voting rights? Don't count on it

Recent events have sparked a sense that the GOP may back off its commitment to making voting harder. In fact, it's doubling down on it.
A man and woman cast their vote at a polling station on Nov. 6, 2012 in Sugar Creek, Wis.
A man and woman cast their vote at a polling station on Nov. 6, 2012 in Sugar Creek, Wis.

After a string of unfavorable court rulings, among other developments, there's a sense that the voting rights debate could be decisively shifting—and perhaps even that the Republican-led assault on voting rights of the last few years could finally be losing steam—as the sheer injustice of the effort becomes undeniable.

But it’s way too early for voting rights advocates to celebrate.

The struggle for access to the ballot could be at a crucial hinge point. Yes, the empirical case for voting restrictions like voter ID is finally being scrutinized by courts and the press—and it’s disintegrating before our eyes. But at the same time, the GOP is showing few signs of backing off its commitment to making voting harder. Indeed, recent events have shown not that questioning voting restrictions is newly acceptable within the GOP, as some have seen it, but rather the opposite: that support for those restrictions is something like a bedrock position for the party and anyone wanting to lead it.

In other words: The arc of history may bend toward justice—but perhaps not for a few more election cycles.

There are certainly plenty of causes for optimism. Late last month, a federal court ruling didn’t just strike down Wisconsin’s voter ID law—it took a hatchet to the logic behind voter ID. District Court Judge Lynn Adelman found that in-person fraud of the kind that an ID would prevent simply hasn’t occurred in the state, and that around 300,000 legitimate Wisconsin voters—disproportionately non-white—don’t have an ID and could be at risk of disenfranchisement. That conclusion was bolstered when Iowa's Republican attorney general, Matt Schultz, a staunch voter ID advocate, released the results of a of a multi-year probe showing not a single instance of in-person voter impersonation in the state in recent years.

Adelman’s opinion sparked a slew of editorials arguing, essentially, that the jig was up for voter ID. It also could affect court cases beyond the Badger State—and beyond the narrow issue of ID. The ACLU last month filed a lawsuit against Ohio’s recent cuts to early voting—a legal effort that, experts say, could get a crucial boost from the Wisconsin ruling, which turned on similar issues of racial impact.

Meanwhile, a state court in Arkansas last month struck down voter ID—the ruling has since been stayed—finding that it violates the state Constitution. And Pennsylvania Republican Governor, Tom Corbett, said last week that he wouldn’t appeal a January court ruling against that state’s ID law.

Just as important, Democrats have at last decided to go on the offensive over voting rights. In a forceful speech last month at the National Action Network convention, President Obama linked the issue to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, and urged supporters to respond to voting restrictions by turning out en masse this fall. If the Democrats’ new approach leads Republicans to conclude that voting restrictions are motivating more Democratic voters than they’re blocking, it could make the GOP reconsider its strategy in a hurry.

Then last week, Sen. Rand Paul, a potential frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, rebuked his party over voter ID, saying Republicans shouldn’t “go too crazy” on the issue because “it’s offending people.” Coming in the wake of the court rulings, and the Democrats’ newly aggressive posture, Paul’s comments seemed like a watershed moment.

Six days later, they look a lot less earth-shaking.

After his mild apostasy on voter ID, Paul was quickly brought back into line. First, he said in a statement that he thinks the issue should be left up to the states—which, by and large, it is—before telling Fox News’s Sean Hannity Tuesday that there’s “nothing wrong” with voter ID, he just wishes Republicans wouldn’t talk about it so much.

"The arc of history may bend toward justice—but perhaps not for a few more election cycles."'

Paul's walk-back is the inevitable result of some much larger trends. It’s not just that polls show voter ID remains popular—though that’s undoubtedly affecting the picture. More important is the GOP’s strategy for winning elections. For all the talk about the need to court Hispanics, the reality is that the easiest short-term path to victory for Republicans is to double-down on their advantage white voters, and work to make the electorate as white as possible. That means restrictions on voting—which hit blacks and Hispanics hardest—are likely to be a page in the party’s playbook for a while.

It’s no coincidence that some of the most important presidential swing states—Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and North Carolina—have been the sites of the fiercest voting rights battles. Republicans know that without most of those states, they could be shut out of the White House for decades.

Nor is it a surprise that the list of Paul’s potential rivals for the nomination includes Republicans, like Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich, who have led the way in blocking access to the ballot. Not a single GOPer in the 2016 conversation has opposed voter ID—including Paul.

The Republican National Lawyers Association—the closest thing there is to an official GOP position on voting issues—is certainly showing no signs of retreating. Not only does the group defend voter ID as zealously as ever—it even opposes a recent recommendation from a bipartisan presidential commission to expand early voting.

The GOP’s approach to the Voting Rights Act is even more revealing about the direction it’s heading. In 2006, the overwhelming majority of Republican lawmakers joined with Democrats to reauthorize the landmark civil rights law. But Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican, has so far failed to get party leaders to sign on to legislation to fix the law after it was weakened by the Supreme Court last year—even though it contains a special carve-out for voter ID, designed to win GOP support. That's happened as numerous states and cities previously covered under the law have taken advantage of Supreme Court's ruling to enact changes to their election laws that reduce the political power of blacks and Latinos—from Texas's strict voter ID law to North Carolina's sweeping voting law, to a host of local-level changes that have largely flown under the national radar.

At the state level, where most policy on access to the vote is made, things are even worse. Walker—who has often been a pioneer for no-holds-barred Republican political tactics—remains so committed to his state’s voter ID law that he recently mulled bring lawmakers back for a special session to amend it if it were struck down by a court (he appears to have dropped that idea). And in Texas, the single most important Republican state, Attorney General Greg Abbott’s support for his state’s ID law is a major part of his stump speech as he runs to replace Perry as Texas governor.

That leaves aside the slew of other states—from Ohio to Florida to Mississippi to Missouri to Nevada to Montana—where Republicans are continuing to push voting restrictions and, for now, aren’t likely to pay a political price.

The strategy is almost certainly doomed in the long-term. We may soon be at the point where, for Republicans, the backlash outweighs the upside—to say nothing of the changing demographics which will ultimately require the party to court non-white voters, not alienate them. But based on the GOP's current behavior, we're not there yet.