When the Voting Rights Act was adopted in 1965, America was a segregated nation. Many states, especially in the South, had discriminatory voting laws that worked to prevent African-Americans from voting. Despite furious opposition from the Jim Crow caucus within the Democratic Party, a bipartisan Congressional majority enacted the law. That began the process of redressing this historic injustice that was part of the unfinished legacy of the Civil War that had concluded a century earlier. We’ve come a long way since then. Jim Crow is but an awful memory and blacks not only vote in most of the South at the same rates that whites do but also can look to a large Congressional Black Caucus whose existence is largely due to subsequent court interpretations of the Act that created minority-majority districts. But for the left, it’s always 1965 and a revival of Jim Crow is just around the corner. That’s the gist of the cover story of this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “A Dream Undone,” that takes it as a given that minority voting rights are not only under attack but about to disappear.
That this is palpably false is self-evident since efforts to single out blacks and prevent them from voting simply do not exist anywhere in the nation. Why then devote space to a nonexistent problem? The Times is singing from the Democratic Party hymnal heading into 2016 as Hillary Clinton attempts to scare African-American voters who are somewhat apathetic about her candidacy into turning out in the same numbers they did for Barack Obama. But if Democrats want to frighten their party’s base into thinking Jim Crow is on its way back, they’ll have to do better than arcane disputes about voter ID or early voting laws.
The conceit of Jim Rutenberg’s lengthy essay is that there is a clear continuum between the death rattle of the segregationists south that began to die in the early 1960s and today’s Republican Party. The superficial justification for this thesis is the way the “solid South” that was run by the racist wing of the Democratic Party was transformed into contemporary deep red South dominated by the GOP. That happened because conservative white voters abandoned the Democrats for the Republicans. But while liberals may view these voters with suspicion, there is no evidence that they are clamoring for a return to the past. One of the greatest victories of the struggle for Civil Rights was the way it transformed the white South from a bastion of racism to one in which racial equality was taken as a given. Race exists as an issue in the America of 2015, but comparisons with 1965 aren’t merely misleading, they are flat out falsehoods. That is especially true in the South, where blacks vote and hold office in numbers that are largely commensurate with their share of the overall population.
At the heart of the controversy are court rulings that have effectively ended federal supervision of voting laws in much of the South. States and localities have correctly argued that a regulation that was created to police the south of the 1960s has no relevance today. But the Obama administration and its liberal cheerleaders are desperate to try and revive the practice because it feeds the notion of a voting rights crisis even when they cannot prove there is one.
The current arguments about voter integrity laws have also been manipulated by the left into arguments about race. But to assume, as Rutenberg does with almost no attempts to persuade readers of the justice of this charge, is to betray the political agenda behind the opposition to voter ID. Liberals argue that laws that seek to have voters identify themselves at the polls with a picture ID disproportionately impact minorities, the elderly and the poor. But the disparate impact argument falls short of proof of racism. Blacks are just as capable of getting a picture ID (which are easily provided by the government even if you don’t have a driver’s license, a passport or some other form of identification) as anyone else. It’s also true that most of those who won’t bother to get a picture ID also won’t bother to register or vote. Moreover, polls have shown that like the overwhelming majority of Americans, blacks support voter ID rules.
It’s easy to understand why this is so despite the hyperbolic rhetoric about voter ID heard from Democrats and echoed in the Times Magazine article. Most Americans rightly think that if you need a picture ID to get on a plane or train, transact any business with the government or a bank, get a beer or alcoholic drink or even buy prescription drugs, then it only makes sense that you should do when doing something that is more important such as voting.
Interestingly, Rutenberg’s piece acknowledges something that most liberals won’t do when discussing voter ID: voter fraud is not a myth. The left claims that there is no such thing as voter fraud in contemporary America. Of course, making such an assumption requires us to forget everything we know about American political history as well as human nature. But the article does mention a prominent case of mass cheating in Florida that led to a major push for voter integrity laws. Rutenberg also trips over but doesn’t quite understand another major reason why there aren’t many cases of vote cheating scandals: the complete lack of interest in the subject on the part of the Obama administration which shelved all such investigations when Eric Holder was attorney general. Holder also acknowledges his disdain for calls for prosecuting Black Panther activists who were intimidating voters in Philadelphia during the election that brought his boss to power.
Philadelphia might have been a good spot for Rutenberg to examine the kind of suspicious vote totals in that Democratic stronghold that might yield more such examples. Indeed, Pennsylvania Republicans believed a voter ID law that was passed but never implemented might win them the state in 2012. That wasn’t because they planned on denying the vote to blacks but because they hoped it might deter Democrats from cheating. But he has no more interest in the topic than Holder since to do so might take the air out of his accusations of racism.
But, of course, voter ID isn’t the only reason why Democrats claim voting rights are in danger. They also to point to efforts to pull back on the movement for early voting throughout the nation. According to Rutenberg, North Carolina’s efforts to have only one week of early voting rather two or several is evidence of an effort to roll back black rights. But unlike with voter ID there is not even any real evidence of disparate impact.
What other evidence is there of a war on voting rights? The article also cites disputes about the drawing of district lines. But there is a clear problem with this line of attack. One of the most obvious changes between 1965 and 2015 is that there are a lot of blacks and Hispanics in Congress. That is not only due to the ability of more minorities to vote but to the drawing of districts in such a way as to create minority majority constituencies that more or less guarantee that a black or a Hispanic will win.
As Rutenberg writes, this practice has been challenged but it has largely been upheld even when the districts have no geographic continuity and can stretch across traditional political boundaries. But the big loser here has not been conservatives or Republicans. Instead it is Democrats who have been devastated by a form of gerrymandering that drains their most reliable supporters — African Americans — out of competitive districts and restricts them to non-competitive Democratic bastions. That has helped build a Congressional GOP majority but while Democrats often lament the impact of gerrymandering they often fail to acknowledge that the Voting Rights Act created the real problem for their party. But for Rutenberg it is all part of a narrative that points to an attack on voting rights.
Rutenberg begins and ends his article with an interview with Henry Frye, a black man who was denied the right to register in 1956 North Carolina. Today that same man not only lives in a country where such outrages are a part of the past, he also lived to see an America with a black president and attorney general. That doesn’t mean prejudice is gone but it does show that the Voting Rights Act achieved its purpose. But today, Frye believes disputes over voter ID and early voting is the moral equivalent to Jim Crow.
Democrats hope other blacks have bought into the same myth. But the comparison, like the shaky reasoning that underpins the entire article, has no basis in fact. But for liberals, a mythical war on voting rights must be invented if they hope to hold onto the White House next year.