My most vivid lesson in voter suppression came during the 1976 Pennsylvania presidential primary when Jimmy Carter fended off Scoop Jackson to take an unstoppable lead for the nomination. In those days, brass-knuckle Democratic ward politics in South Philadelphia would make the tactics used in Chicago and Boston seem like a church picnic hosted by Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
All the candidates for the nomination (Carter, Jackson, Mo Udall) were nearly broke as they stumbled into Pennsylvania without (yes, it was long ago) a Super PAC to pitch in. What this meant was that no candidate had the cash to buy the allegiance of all of South Philadelphia. So Carter—like his rivals—could only purchase a limited number of wards.
Early on primary morning, a political operative working on the campaign came racing into Carter headquarters shouting, “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. I don’t believe it. And I’m from Boston.”
A few minutes after the polls had opened in one of the wards that Jackson bought, the local boss, a beefy guy, strolled in and physically ripped the Carter levers of every voting machine. The Carter poll watchers, of course, called the Board of Elections and city workers from downtown quickly fixed the old-fashioned machines. But as soon as the city officials left, the ward boss came back and again detached the Carter levers. “I’ve got all day to do this,” he announced to the Carter crew. “And you’ve got better things to do. So get out of here.”
The aspect of the story that seems remarkable nearly four decades later was its blunt honesty. The Philadelphia ward boss did not claim that he was simplifying the primary ballot for confused voters by taking away the Carter option. Instead, this was a naked display of political power (Carter didn’t pay, so he couldn’t play) that nobody bothered to camouflage with pious pronouncements.
Of course, that isn’t how the game is played these days.
Last Friday, in the first gubernatorial debate of the hard-fought Wisconsin campaign, Republican Scott Walker talked about the anguish of having your vote not matter because of electoral fraud. The United States Supreme Court had just delayed implementation of Wisconsin’s voter ID law until after the 2014 election. But asked in the first debate question to defend the legislation that he championed, Walker sounded like a Cheese-head version of Voltaire as he said, “It doesn’t matter if there’s one, one hundred or one thousand [fraudulent votes]. Amongst us who would be that one person who would like to have our vote cancelled out by a vote that was cast illegally?”
Walker neglected to mention that a federal district court judge had estimated that as many as 300,000 registered Wisconsin voters lack the photo IDs mandated by the law. But Walker seemed blithely unconcerned that a portion of these 300,000 Wisconsinites might never vote again. A recent study by the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that voter ID laws cut 2012 turnout by about 2 percent in Tennessee and Kansas, with minority and young voters particularly affected.
But to Walker, what seemed of transcendent importance was deterring a single theoretical instance of voter fraud in a state where more than 3 million ballots were cast in 2012. It is the equivalent of using the full force of state law to make sure that unicorns are not grazing on the grounds of the Wisconsin state Capitol. Yes, a unicorn invasion might be a theoretical problem, but it is certainly not a major threat to life in Wisconsin.
It was the brazenness of Walker’s non-answer that rankles. The governor couldn’t even muster a fact-based argument, however exaggerated, to justify the voter ID law that Wisconsin enacted in his first year as governor. (It has been delayed by court reviews since then). But rather than admitting that this is just naked political power at work, politicians like Walker deny the obvious: Voter ID laws are designed to depress turnout by traditionally Democratic groups.
Political morality in 2014 pretty much has been reduced to the line from the movie version of The Untouchables: “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.” So the idea that Republicans will abandon voter ID laws because…well…they are not sporting is akin to believing that Super PACs will be spurned because billionaires have too much political influence.
(As someone has covered politics for four decades, I remain skeptical that Democratic campaign operatives exist on a higher ethical plane than their GOP rivals. The Democrats just have never figured how a way to make voting difficult for gun-owners who are regular viewers of Fox News).
In an ideal world, voters would see through the specious arguments on which voter ID laws are premised. But, for the most part, that has not happened. A new Marquette University Law School Poll in Wisconsin found that likely voters support a voter ID requirement by a 51-to-39 percent margin. At a time when Americans have grown used to being forced to flash a driver’s license to visit a dentist on the fourth floor of a suburban office park, voter ID requirements may not seem unreasonable to those who lead middle-class lives. But it is a failure of empathy—the failure to understand who would be disenfranchised—that gives such laws their surface popularity.
Aside from a sweeping Supreme Court decision, the best disincentive to voter ID laws remains an uprising at the polls. (Alec MacGillis makes an analogous case in the New Republic). Disproportionately high turnout from the type of voters that ID laws target would prompt Republicans to rethink the tactic.
There is a bit of precedent. For a decade, Ohio has been ground zero for battles over electoral restrictions with polling places in minority neighborhoods enduring criminally long lines and a lack of voting machines during the 2004 presidential race. (Had John Kerry gotten an additional 119,000 votes in Ohio, he would have been president). As a result, African-American turnout in Ohio has risen in every presidential election since then. Black voters were 10 percent of the Ohio electorate in 2004, 11 percent in 2008 and a stunning 15 percent in 2012.
That’s why I am curious what lessons the Republican Party might draw if Scott Walker loses his reelection race, which is knotted in the latest polls. Equally intriguing is the North Carolina Senate campaign where GOP nominee Thom Tillis narrowly trails once-beleaguered Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan. Tillis appears to be carrying a heavy burden from his role as speaker of the state House during the 2013 legislative session when an empowered Republican majority approved a far-reaching conservative agenda, including a voter ID law that will take effect in 2016.
Political tactics do change over time. Which is why Willie Horton-style attack ads on crime are fast disappearing and no one is still yanking levers off voting machines in South Philadelphia. Voter ID laws have been a way for the Republicans to cope with being primarily the party of older white voters in a fast-changing America. That position is politically unsustainable over time. The only question—and this brings us back to Scott Walker and Thom Tillis—is how long it takes for the Republican Party to get the message.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.