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The Gray Lady’s Voter Suppression Quandry

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In the midst of a recent deposition under oath in a lawsuit in which he was seeking to recover money he believed he was owed by the Florida G.O.P., former state party chair Jim Greer used vivid language to describe the situation inside the party when he stepped down. As the Tampa Bay Times summarizes it, he:

denounced some party officials as liars and ‘whack-a-do, right-wing crazies’ as he described turmoil in the months before his resignation. Greer said some GOP leaders were meeting to discuss ways they could suppress black votes while others were constantly scheming against each other.

Greer, again under oath, detailed a December 2009 meeting with party general counsel Jason Gonzalez, political consultant Jim Rimes and Eric Eikenberg, then-governor Charlie Crist’s chief of staff, at which “the political consultants and staff were talking about voter suppression and keeping blacks from voting.” Florida then went on to enact some of the nation’s most aggressive anti-voter legislation, hiring consultants to prune allegedly ineligible voters from the rolls and threatening civics teachers with prosecution for attempting to register young new voters. The Justice Department is challenging the legislation as a violation of federal voting-rights legislation. The G.O.P. has put forward similar legislation in many battleground states, for purposes it rarely attempts to disguise. In remarks to the Republican National Committee, for instance, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai was perfectly candid about the objective of the legislation: It would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

The G.O.P.’s aggressive tactics in the lead-up to the 2012 elections have clear outcomes: reducing the number of eligible voters and discouraging or outright intimidating voters on the periphery, especially blacks and Hispanics. In a tight election, such tactics could well skew the results a few percentage points in the Republican Party’s favor. They also underscore the Republican Party’s turn toward its right-wing fringe and away from groups, like Hispanics, who form an increasing share of the electorate. Instead of recognizing America’s changing demographics, the Republicans are attempting to lock in the old demographics by electoral legerdemain.

In defending itself, the G.O.P. has thrown up a smoke screen about the “voter fraud” against which these measures theoretically would guard. However, they have failed to present any serious evidence of such fraud. (In fact, the highest-profile recent cases of voter fraud all involve elected G.O.P. officials.) Fortunately for the G.O.P., though, America’s mainstream media has come to the rescue.

An article by Ethan Bronner in this morning’s New York Times shows just how bad writing on this subject can be. “Partisan rifts hinder efforts to improve U.S. voting system,” reads the headline. Yes, it all boils down to that old bromide: these two parties just can’t get along. “This has all become incredibly politicized in recent years,” reveals one election-law expert. Imagine that: The electoral process is politicized! The article presents a Democratic view and a Republican view and attempts to accommodate each with the utmost equanimity.

The problem, of course, is that the truth can’t be found by triangulating between Democrats and Republicans, so the story’s structure serves the interests of the Republicans—indeed, it implicitly legitimizes their tactics. In an interview on On Point, Bronner ultimately conceded the point under pressure, “It’s a little harsh to say that the only point of these things is to suppress voting for Democratic candidates,” he said, “but that clearly will be the effect.” Harsh? It’s not only the obvious truth, but one even Republicans can occasionally be caught admitting. Why should Bronner struggle so mightily to suppress it? And why does he seem to think it makes his writing more professional if he avoids “harsh” truth?

Voter-suppression campaigns disenfranchise and distort the voter pool, and they alienate citizens on the margins and undermine the democratic legitimacy of elections. These values are more worthy of protection than the perceived dignity of the G.O.P. In a piece about the Republican voter-suppression project for the Nieman Watchdog, Dan Froomkin, writes:

Modern American journalists strive for impartiality, but there is a limit. Mainstream journalists shouldn’t be afraid of being accused of taking sides when what they’re doing is standing up for basic constitutional rights. Indeed, the greater danger is that readers condemn them—or even worse, stop paying attention to them—for having no convictions at all, and no moral compass.

Impartiality, in the sense of refusing to subscribe to the programmatic thinking of a political movement, is surely a good thing for a professional journalist. But it’s a mystery why some reporters emphasize it in the face of misconduct by specific political actors. This attitude cheapens our nation’s political dialogue and enables maneuvers like voter suppression by the G.O.P.

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