The Republican National Committee issued a statement on Thursday praising a law that Republican appointees to the Supreme Court have hobbled and that Republican officials have actively sought to undermine through state laws that disenfranchise racial minorities. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus’s statement on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act even contains a coded call for more laws making it harder to Americans to cast a ballot.
The statement is drafted as if Republicans support the Voting Rights Act — a law they did actually support as recently as 2006, when Congress almost unanimously renewed the law. “We owe a great deal to those who stood up to discrimination, threats of violence and even death to push for the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965,” Priebus’s statement begins. The very next sentence, however, contains coded language which Republicans frequently use to describe laws that place barriers in the way of Americans seeking to vote: “Every citizen should have the chance to vote in our elections while we also work to ensure the integrity of the voting process by preventing things such as mistakes, fraud and confusion.”
Supporters of laws restricting the franchise frequently cite the need to protect voter “integrity” and prevent “fraud” at the polls in order to justify these laws. The conservative Heritage Foundation, for example, released talking points in 2014 seeking to defend some common proposals that create barriers to the franchise. Their first talking point was “[e]nsuring the security and integrity of the election process is critical to maintaining our democratic republic,” the second one was “Congress and the states should guarantee that every eligible individual can vote and that no person’s vote is negated by fraud.”
Similarly, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) defends his state’s voter ID law as “a common sense reform that protects the integrity of our voting process.” Armed law enforcement officers raided a group called Houston Votes, which registered low-income voters, as part of an investigation spearheaded by then-Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott’s (R) office. Though no charges were filed, Abbott’s aides defended the raid as an effort to “preserve the integrity of the ballot box” and to prevent voter fraud. When North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed omnibus legislation compiling multiple different restrictions on voting, the chair of the North Carolina Republican Party praised it as a tool seeking to address “massive potential voter fraud” and “protect the integrity of the ballot box.”
Yet, while Republicans and their allies are quick to warn about voter fraud and threats to voter integrity, reality does not match their rhetoric. Voter ID laws, for example, typically address just one form of voter fraud: voter impersonation at the polls. But such impersonation is only slightly more common than unicorns and dragons. A Wisconsin study of the 2004 election found just seven cases of fraud out of 3 million votes cast — and none of these seven cases involved voter impersonation at the polls. An investigation by former Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz (R) found zero cases of in-person voter fraud over the course of several elections.
Laws such as voter ID, in other words, potentially disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters, yet they address a problem that is little more than an illusion.
Because the voter suppression tactics supported by many Republicans often have a disproportionate impact on voters of color, the Voting Rights Act’s protections against racial voter discrimination are serious obstacles to efforts to implement these tactics. Indeed, on Wednesday, a federal appeals court held that Texas’s voter ID law violates the Voting Rights Act.
Republicans, meanwhile, have done more to undermine the Voting Rights Act in the last three years then all of the slings and arrows hurled at the law by the Jim Crow South. All five Republicans on the Supreme Court joined a 5–4 decision gutting one of the law’s core provisions in 2013. And, while a bill seeking to restore much of the law received nominal support from Republicans in Congress, Republican leaders did not even schedule a hearing on this bill.
Earlier this year, a group of Democrats introduced a stronger version of the bill. In an interview with The Nation’s Ari Berman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) explained that the previous version was weaker because “ [w]e made compromises to get [Republican] support and they didn’t keep their word.” Leahy has not found a single Republican co-sponsor for either version of the bill responding to the Supreme Court’s attack on the Voting Rights Act.
Thursday evening, just hours after the RNC released Priebus’s statement, ten candidates for the Republican presidential nomination will meet on a debate stage. They include Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has “worked to restrict where and when state residents can register to vote, vote early, and vote absentee.” They’ll also include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who carried out voter purge shortly before the election and Supreme Court decision that handed the presidency to Bush’s brother. Wisconsin Gov. Walker, of course, signed his state’s voter ID law. On the day that the justices handed down their decision striking down part of the Voting Rights Act, Sen. Ted Cruz attacked that act for subjecting “democratically-elected state legislatures to second-guessing by unelected federal bureaucrats.”