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.