Tuesday’s decision neutering a key prong of the Voting Rights Act leaves supporters of voting rights in a difficult position. If they do nothing, voter suppression laws can go into effect, and may not be struck down by the courts until after they have succeeded in disenfranchising many voters. Yet the Roberts Court’s decision to hollow out America’s voting rights protections also allows conservatives to exact concessions before the voting rights regime that five Republican justices killed can be restored.
Shortly after the decision, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, dropped a hint at just what those concessions could be — give the greenlight to a common GOP-backed voter suppression law, or the heart of the Voting Rights Act is dead forever. In an interview with CBS News, Grassley claimed he is “open to looking at ways to address the issues addressed in the court’s decision.” Yet he added that he believed the Justice Department was wrong to use the act to block “common sense measures such as voter identification laws.”
Voter ID laws are not common sense, and they are exactly the kind of device the Voting Rights Act was enacted to prevent. Although Republicans often claim these laws are needed to prevent voter fraud at the polls, such fraud is virtually non-existent. A study of Wisconsin voters found that only 0.00023 percent of votes are the product of in-person voter fraud, meaning that a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit fraud at the polls.
What voter ID laws do accomplish, however, is removing many low-income voters, students and people of color from the electorate — all of which are groups that tend to vote for Democrats. The entire purpose of the Voting Rights Act is to block laws that suppress voting among racial minorities, so the Justice Department correctly invoked the act to hold up voter ID laws.
Now, however, Grassley’s statement suggests that Republicans could demand that voter ID laws be given an exemption from the Voting Rights Act before the act can be reinstated. In essence, Republicans could block the most effective mechanism of stopping voter suppression laws unless the new voting rights law exempts the GOP’s favorite tactic for suppressing minority votes.