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Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Topics: Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin, Souls to the Polls, voter suppression, Immigration Reform, President Obama, 2016 Elections, Hillary Clinton, White people, Demographics, Editor's Picks, Elections News, News, Politics News
Republicans like to think of themselves as the Christian party, so it never entirely made sense that they oppose what’s become known as “Souls to the Polls,” a big push by black churches on the Sundays before Election Day to bring worshippers directly from the pews to the polls in states with early voting. But of course they oppose it, because their love of Jesus comes second to their love of discouraging African-Americans from exercising their right to vote.
So after Wisconsin went overwhelmingly for President Obama with a strong black turnout in 2008, GOP legislators cut the number of early voting days in half, and specifically closed the polls on the Sunday before the election. But black voters struck back by shifting “Souls to the Polls” to two Sundays before Election Day in 2012. And it worked. After an inspiring Milwaukee rally outside the county building, lines to obtain ballots and then to cast them stretched down hallways and snaked around corners. For hours, every voting booth was full. Families came with tiny children, many still dressed for church. I noted at the time “it was the Obama coalition in microcosm – mostly younger whites, women and African-Americans.”
Obama won the state again, this time more narrowly, thanks to continued strong African-American turnout. The Republican plan didn’t work.
Now Wisconsin Republicans have done away with “Souls to the Polls” entirely. Thanks to a bill just signed by Gov. Scott Walker, there’s no weekend voting in Wisconsin at all anymore, even though research shows weekend voters are younger, poorer and less white. Scratch that: It’s not “even though”; it’s specifically because they’re younger, poorer and – especially – less white.
Three stories in the last three days brought into focus exactly how Republicans plan to tough out the demographic extinction that is eventually coming for them, if they remain a 90 percent white party in a country that will be less than half white within 25 years. One, they’re doing as Wisconsin did, and ramming through voting restrictions in states controlled by Republicans. As the New York Times reported Sunday, Wisconsin is only one of nine states have made it harder to vote since Obama’s re-election (18 states had already made it tougher after he won the first time, according to the Brennan Center).
Two, they’re working hard to demoralize the Democratic base by blocking policies Democrats promised to enact, like immigration reform. Another Times piece showed how Latino activists are finding it hard to register and motivate Latino voters, because the failure to make good on immigration legislation has them convinced anew that voting doesn’t matter. Of 50 people approached by a young Latina organizer, “not a single person” was interested. “They were like, ‘Why? Why would I bother to vote?’” the organizer told the Times.
Finally, an AP story detailed how a combination of geography and gerrymandering let Republican state legislatures draw congressional district lines that will let the GOP control the House, even as Democrats get millions more votes in House races overall.
What can Democrats do to fight back? Well, there’s some evidence that the wave of voter restrictions helped drive black turnout in 2012 to its highest rates ever, as African-Americans were determined to do exactly what Republicans were trying to prevent. But there’s a limit to how much we can ask of black voters, already the most reliable Democrats, in the face of such determined infringements of their rights.
They can also stop blathering about 2016 and focus on the midterms. If Democrats want to get “Ready for Hillary,” they ought to get Congress ready for her first, or else being president will be even more frustrating than it’s been for Obama.
One thing Obama can do to counter Latino voter discouragement is stop thinking Republicans will reward his high deportation strategy by passing immigration reform. He has told Latino advocates that he is reviewing what he can do via executive order (as he did with halting deportations of intended DREAM Act beneficiaries), but the Times reported on what it called “Mr. Obama’s bind: If he suspends more deportations, he could mend relations with Latinos and perhaps motivate more of them to vote. But he could lose what chance remains for new immigration law, his second-term domestic priority, since House Republicans have signaled they would cite such executive action as proof that he cannot be trusted to enforce any law.”
If that’s true, Mr. Obama’s bind is of Mr. Obama’s own making, because there is no chance for new immigration law, and he’s being played by the GOP again. Five years into his presidency, that would be disappointing.
To be fair, not all Republicans support the voter suppression strategy, not even in Wisconsin. State Sen. Dale Schultz voted against the bill cutting back early voting, deriding his party’s emphasis on “mechanics and not ideas.” He added: “Making it more difficult for people to vote is not a good sign for a party that wants to attract more people,” he said.
The truth is, most Republicans don’t think they have to “attract more people,” if they limit those who can vote to the people they already attract: older, wealthier white people. They don’t need “ideas” either; they can go without their own immigration reform bill, or a plan to “replace” Obamacare, as long as they’re playing the trifecta of voter suppression, voter demoralization and gerrymandering. If Republicans hit that trifecta, they don’t have to worry about being overwhelmingly outnumbered by Democrats. They can steamroll the midterms, when the electorate is reliably older and whiter, and lock up state houses by spending big money in a low-turnout year.
They even have a shot at the White House, though that route is harder, because Democrats are developing an electoral-vote lock, thanks to the combination of big states turning deeper blue and higher presidential-election-year turnout by young and nonwhite voters. But winning the White House is worth less and less if a president is thwarted by Republican nihilists, and the cynicism that results could ultimately overwhelm the Democrats’ demographic advantages.
Even in 2012, that cynicism threatened Obama’s reelection. At the Milwaukee “Souls to the Polls” rally I attended, Rep. Gwen Moore admitted some black voters were less motivated than in 2008, because Obama had been thwarted so frequently and the economy remained bad, especially for African-Americans. “Some people are devastated and discouraged,” Moore admitted. “They are rightfully angry that things haven’t turned around.”
“Souls to the Polls” organizing gave African-Americans a chance to rally their neighbors and fight cynicism. No more. The GOP strategy is to encourage cynicism and thwart early voting, by any means necessary.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
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