Now or then?

I think Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick is a terrific writer.  Along with NaPP’s own Burt Likko, she’s the writer whose legal analysis I find most reliably informative and enjoyable to read.  Which is why a glaring instance of sloppiness is so jarring in a piece she co-wrote with Risa Goluboff about tightening voter restrictions in numerous states.

The authors do a creditable job of explaining why these new laws hit minority voters disproportionately hard.  For my part, I agree that these laws are designed to keep Democratic-leaning voters away from the ballot box under the guise of combating a non-existent problem (voter fraud).  I am broadly in favor of enfranchising as many voters as possible.  And yes, there is a resonance to these laws that feels troublingly close to Jim Crow.

Where things break down is at the end, when the authors try to pin down the intentions behind these new laws.

Of course, back then such claims [of voter fraud] were deeply bound up with white supremacy and the corrupt practices of white politicians jockeying for black or immigrant votes. And the anti-fraud rationale went hand-in-hand with explicit and open calls for white supremacy. No longer is it politically palatable to declare, as a Virginian who did at the turn of the 20th century, that one intends “to disfranchise every negro that [one can] … and as few white people as possible.” Now we simply have conservatives like Paul Weyrich elliptically telling evangelicals in 1980: “I don’t want everybody to vote.”  [emphasis added here and in next excerpt]

There are two problems with using that quote.  First is that there is an important difference between not wanting people to vote and trying to deprive them of the ability to do so.  It would suit me just fine if a whole mess of social conservatives decide to sit out the next several election cycles.  But their right to head to the polls in support of an agenda I abhor is unquestionable.  But even assuming the Weyrich quote says what they think it does, how does 1980 count as “now”?  Evidence linking conservatives to deliberate minority disenfranchisement must be thin on the ground if they’re reaching back over thirty years to find it.

Then there’s this:

Not only are the stated “anti-fraud” justifications for this new crop of voter restrictions the same as they were in 1890, but the underlying goal of these restrictions is also unchanged: to shape an electorate that will vote for particular kinds of politicians. In a country with hugely shifting demographics, that problem is as urgent as it was a century ago for so-called “reformers.” In the Jim Crow era, the impulse for disenfranchisement came from the Democratic Party, which used new restrictions on black voters to become the Solid South. Today, it is the Republican Party capitalizing on the remnants of Jim Crow to restrict the votes of the poor and minority communities most likely to vote for Democrats. It is the same impulse we see when Rick Santorum says that if Republicans could only eliminate single mothers, more Republicans will be elected. It’s a way of saying some voters simply count more than others. The Constitution is quite clear, at least where race is concerned, that the opposite is true.

I loathe Rick Santorum and everything he stands for.  But I left the link intact so readers can see the context of what he said.  He isn’t talking about keeping single mothers from voting.  He’s saying that, if only those single mothers could get married to good, decent Christian fellas, they’d stop turning to the government for a handout (and voting for Democrats to keep the handouts coming).  Appallingly chauvinistic in its own right?  Sure.  But they’re misrepresenting his quote in support of their thesis.

Do I think these new laws are aimed at keeping populations that typically vote Democratic away from the polls?  Sure looks suspicious to me.  But the piece makes a strong enough case simply by reporting the disproportionate impact of these laws without needing to torture a few old or out-of-context quotes.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. Thanks for the props. I’ve little to add to this other than to note that Ms. Lithwick’s thesis was at least adequately supported by other evidence she cited without having had to bend the truth in the ways you point out.

    • The problem is, the rest of the evidence all points to outcome, not intent.

      “The Them did This and the outcome was both unjust and in their favor” is an argument to overturn This.

      “The Them did This and they did it on purpose because they hate justice and Us” is an argument to not listen to anything the Them say.

      People on both sides of the aisle seem very concerned with telling me why I should not listen to Them, because they’re really big poopyheads.

  2. Minority party does what’s in its advantage: preventing people from voting. Practically the definition of minority party.

    -pauses for a moment, watching koz take a big breath to gush out some flames-

    Fraud is much more likely during/after the votes have been counted. See Wisconsin and Florida. Fewer people to shut up then, ya?

  3. fwiw, I didn’t see them making the same argument about Santorum that you did – mostly because of the phrase “It is the same impulse we see when…”

    I do agree that Santorum didn’t seem to be making a voter suppression argument, so much as a dog-whistle-y Welfare Queens are destroying your country pitch.

    • They go on with “It’s a way of saying some voters simply count more than others.” I don’t see that in his odious little statement, except in the sense that you describe. Certainly doesn’t seem to support a point about disenfranchisement to me.

      • Agreed. I’d rather they have tied the statement about single mothers with his recent diatribes on WSO, and how unconscionable it is that those people are pitting Americans against Americans. That seems like a more natural fit.

        (Although, I have to confess something. I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but the kind of pundit-y slight of hand you admonish in your post is something that always bugs the crap out of me, regardless of what side does it. And yet… there’s something about it being done to this guy that makes me not so irritated. It’s not a fair standard, but I just find the guy so creepy.)

        • Oh, there’s nobody I’d rather see pilloried more than this asshat. I just really, really hate that guy.

          And yet, I hate it even more when people I usually admire undermine their credibility by misrepresenting their ideological opponents. Even when said opponent is Rick “Santorum” Santorum.

        • Todd, this is interesting. I’ve heard him on the usual game shows and there is nothing I’ve heard him say that sounds even remotely offensive, zilch. What in particular has he said that upsets you so much? Seems like just the typical, bland, tedious boilerplate talking points. I’m really at a loss at why he hit so many of your nerves. He obviously has very strong religious viewpoints and convictions, but at this level, who doesn’t? In any case, he’s not going anywhere so that should at least lower your BP to a safe level.

  4. A couple moves back, I lived in the southwest in a town heavily populated with Hispanics and blacks (in addition to whites, of course, and more than a few Asians). The city and county were Democratic, through and through. The subject of voter ID and residency requirements actually came up while I was there, except that it was the black political leaders that favored it. Asians, a “conservative” voting block as far as city politics went, opposed it (a lot of Asian immigrants don’t trust DMV’s, apparently). White political leaders, for the most part, wanted to stay out of it.

    I’m not making a political point here. It was just really interesting to watch unfold.

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