Easy Chair — From the March 2017 issue

Tyranny of the Minority

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I used to take heart in the changing demographics of this country. Around half the children in the United States are not white, and the statistic made me think that the nation would someday soon resemble California, where I live. This is a state in which whites are in the minority, Democrats have a supermajority in both the upper and lower houses, and no Republican holds statewide office. I imagined that it was suicide for the G.O.P. to ignore the concerns of people of color, to craft a platform based on white grievance. Surely, I thought, John McCain and Mitt Romney lost their elections in part because a party run for and by white people had no future. But there was a fundamental flaw in my thinking: demographics matter only in a democracy, in a system in which every citizen has equal power and equal access to representation. That equality is threatened today, thanks to the Republican Party’s long campaign against those who are likely to vote against them. Today’s Republicans are democracy’s enemy, and it is theirs.

Republicans won much of their current power in Congress by patiently increasing their influence at the local level. This helped them win state legislatures, which in turn allowed them to redraw districts and create unsinkable Republican strongholds, which permitted them to become a huge majority in the lower house even as their base shrank. The number of House seats held by Republicans has increased by around 20 percent since 2008. In the 2012 congressional elections, Democrats won the majority of votes but Republicans took the majority of seats — 234 to 201. In recent years, many Democrat-sponsored proposals affecting gun control, reproductive rights, and the environment failed not because they were unpopular among the electorate but because the Senate and the House were dominated by the most extreme faction of the minority party.

Time and again, Republicans have cynically whipped up fake problems to justify real attacks on voting rights. They frequently claim to be working against voter fraud, which they paint as a huge problem undermining elections across the country. (In reality, voter fraud occurs at an insignificant rate in the United States.) They have used voter caging, in which a person’s right to vote is challenged face-to-face, sometimes on the grounds that such voters no longer reside at the address where they are registered. They have instituted voter-I.D. laws, which penalize the poor, who are among the least likely to have state identification. And they have taken away the right to vote from more than 6 million Americans convicted of felonies, a policy that disproportionately affects the poor and non-white.

One of the most appalling of these projects is the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program. Now in effect in twenty-nine states, the program was initiated in 2005 with the ostensible purpose of finding people who had voted in more than one location. “A whole lot of people named ‘James Brown’ are suspected of voting or registering twice, 357 of them in Georgia alone,” the journalist Greg Palast wrote in 2014. “But according to Crosscheck, James Willie Brown is supposed to be the same voter as James Arthur Brown.” When Palast was writing, before that year’s Senate races, there were 7 million people named on the list, many of them non-white; if even a fraction of them were prevented from voting, he suggested, the outcome of the races would be altered — not to mention that of the 2016 presidential race.

Reducing the participation of voters with a certain profile isn’t a side effect of such laws — it’s the point. Todd Allbaugh, the former chief of staff to a Wisconsin state legislator, was in the state’s closed Senate Republican Caucus during discussions of multiple voter-I.D. bills. A handful of senators, he told Chris Hayes on MSNBC, were “giddy” as they spoke explicitly about suppressing minority and student voters. “I heard people in a party that I’d fought for,” he marveled, “talking about how we can take people’s constitutional rights away, or at least impede them, in order to hang on to power.”

Allbaugh is the rare witness to a widespread conspiracy that is almost certainly having an impact. In last November’s election, Donald Trump won thanks to narrow margins in just three states. However, there were multiple voting irregularities reported, making it a real possibility that he did not win some or all of those states, and therefore lost not only the popular vote (which he did, by more than 2.8 million votes) but the Electoral College as well.

1 Systematic disenfranchisement in the South is also discussed in Andrew Cockburn’s Letter from Washington.

Yet even if you accept that Trump legitimately won the swing states, massive voter disenfranchisement across the nation left millions of poor and non-white Americans out of the election entirely. If those disenfranchised legions had voted, it’s almost certain the outcome would have been different. The Reverend William Barber II, the head of the North Carolina NAACP, wrote on ThinkProgress in December: “If you just register thirty percent of the unregistered black voters in the South and you get them to vote along with progressive whites and Latinos, the South is no longer solid.”1 Republicans know this, and are afraid. At this point, they are maintaining control by sheer force and chicanery. As demographics continue to shift in this country, there is little doubt that they will keep upping the ante.

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