Political Animal


March 07, 2013 1:30 PM Polarization and Voting Rights

By Ed Kilgore

The 48th anniversary of the bloody beginning of the Selma March at the Edmund Pettis Bridge is as good a time as any to talk about the possibly imminent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the U.S. Supreme Court (or at least five members of that Court).

At Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz answers Justice Roberts’ recent question during oral arguments about the need for the “discriminatory” application of Section 5 by looking at recent evidence of racial polarization in voting in the states covered by that law. The abysmal performance of Republicans among nonwhite voters everywhere is so notable that it’s sometimes difficult to see the South as more polarized racially and politically than the rest of the country. But still, in as of 2008 (the last time we had national exit polls in a presidential election), nonwhite voters made up 62% of the Democratic coalition in the Section 5 states and only 35% in the rest of the country. And historically, there’s no question racial polarization has played a huge part in the Republican takeover of the Deep South, beginning with the hyper-racialized states of Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina and then spreading to the rest of the region.

Speaking of the Republican takeover, however, Abramowitz makes a key point about the particularly poor timing of any judicially imposed abandonment of Section 5:

All nine covered states currently have Republican governors and Republican majorities in both chambers of their legislatures. This means that political leaders in these states have a powerful incentive to suppress or dilute the votes of African Americans and other minorities because these groups make up the large majority of the Democratic electoral base in their states. Moreover, as the majority party, they also have the ability to enact laws and regulations to accomplish these goals.

And they can do so, of course, without significant negative impact on their own voters. Even if you think the evidence of especially persistent racism in the Deep South is mixed, this is a temptation to voter suppression that no honest person can expect Southern Republicans to resist.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on March 07, 2013 1:58 PM:

    Why would the same people who created gerrymandered Congressional Districts, that look like snakes that are corkscrewed around browner areas, NOT want to suppress the votes of people who'd never even think for a second of voting for them?

    Uhm, Justice Scalia, and the rest of your "Conservative Corporatist Gang of Four/Five," THAT WAS THE POINT OF THE VOTING RIGHTS ACTS IN THE FIRST FECKIN' PLACE!!!

    It's never to early to start our GOTV efforts.
    Even if we don't know what new evil sh*t they'll try to pull right before the '14 and '16 elections.

  • abc on March 07, 2013 2:10 PM:

    Interesting how Justice Scalia viewed voting as a right protected by the EPC in Bush v. Gore but now views it as an entitlement.

    Section 5 was renewed in 2006 by a 98-0 vote in the Senate and 390-33 and the bill signed by a Republican president.

    Had it been applied to all 50 states the right wing of the court would complain it is not narrowly tailored to meet the need; because it is narrowly tailored, they'll complain it treats states unequally.

    But who is best to judge where it should be applied? The courts or the legislature? If it is debatable why should it be up to 9 unelected justices to do the line drawing?

    It is the height of judicial activism to think the court should sit as a superlegislature reweighing the balance struck by the Congress -- not just in 1965, but in 2006. Even more so here where there is no actual, concrete state-requested change in election law under consideration, but rather an abstract policy argument about the entire scope of Section 5.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on March 07, 2013 2:27 PM:

    "And they can do so, of course, without significant negative impact on their own voters."

    I don't totally agree, because this can backfire. If you convince every black voter that protecting their own civil rights depends on fighting all the obstacles and turning out, as the GOP did in 2012, you'll get a much higher turnout.

    Mississippi is 40% African-American and voted 40% for Obama. If you convince such a large Democratic constituency to become more politically engaged, as a Republican you're really creating headaches.

    And really, what's the downside of not pushing the oppression? It's not like Republicans are struggling in the South in the status quo. The states where their hold is most tenuous are also in a position to react negatively to these power grabs.

    Fortunately the GOP is stupid and short-sighted about this, just like they're stupid and short-sighted about everything.

  • mb on March 07, 2013 2:41 PM:

    Given the recent attempts by various states NOT covered by Sec. 5 to undermine minority voting rights, seems that what should happen is that Sec. 5 should be applied to all states. I've got a feeling, though, that that's not going to happen.

  • Marc in Denver on March 07, 2013 4:42 PM:

    A little quibble. As a descendant of one of the folks he owned, it is spelled Pettus and not Pettis. Thanks for your time.

  • paul on March 08, 2013 11:40 AM:

    I think that DoJ should enforce USC 18 242 instead:

    Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, willfully subjects any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States ... on account of such person being an alien, or by reason of his color, or race, than are prescribed for the punishment of citizens, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year...

    One count per voter.