Republicans continue their assault on the voting rights of minorities, and the Supreme Court is helping them do it

A bracing new report on vote suppression in Texas shows that future access to the ballot is very much in doubt

Published December 19, 2015 11:30AM (EST)

  (Reuters/AP/Jim Young/Dave Tulis/Nati Harnik)
(Reuters/AP/Jim Young/Dave Tulis/Nati Harnik)

There’s a masterful report from Jim Rutenberg in the latest edition of the New York Times Magazine that you really should read. Not simply because good journalism is harder to find nowadays and deserves your support; but because it’s about one of the most important political battles happening across the United States right now, a battle that is part of a war as old as the country itself.

The war is over voting rights; which is another way of saying that it’s a war over who will be granted full participation in this noble democratic experiment. It’s a war over whose claim of belonging — not conditionally or temporarily, but as full and equal members of the political community — will be recognized by those who never gave the question a second thought. It’s a war over what being an American really means.

And as Rutenberg’s piece, the second chapter of an ongoing series, shows with painful clarity, it’s a war that the good guys are losing.

You’ve probably heard at least something about this before. Maybe it was in 2011, when new, Tea Party-infused Republican majorities in multiple state governments passed voter ID laws. Many Democrats regarded these measures as a thinly veiled defensive response to the 2008 election, when unprecedentedly high minority turnout helped Barack Obama become the first African-American elected U.S. president.

Or maybe you first heard about it in 2013, when a 5-4 Supreme Court majority gutted Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) in the intensely controversial Shelby County v. Holder case. Regarded as perhaps the most vital part of the seminal law, Section 5 gave the federal government power over more than a dozen states and counties with histories of racist vote suppression: Any changes they made to voting rules that it deemed discriminatory, it could reject.

However you first heard about the suddenly all-too-relevant fight over access to the ballot, though, the chances are good that it was placed in the context of African-Americans’ long struggle for equality. Which, to be clear, it is. But one of the reasons why Rutenberg’s piece is so valuable is because it forces us to move past that traditional framing. Because although this fight is about our country’s shameful past, it’s about our uncertain future, too.

More specifically, it’s about the rapid demographic transformation currently roiling the United States, a transformation that is largely (though not exclusively) the result of Latin-American immigration. To tell that story, Rutenberg looks at Texas, which is both “the last line of defense” the GOP has against Democrats in the Electoral College, as current Gov. Greg Abbott once said, as well as home to one of the fastest-growing Latino-American populations in the U.S.

The picture of Texas politics drawn by Rutenberg is not pretty — at least not to those of us who think “Americanness” has to do with sharing a set of values, rather than a skin color or place of origin. Using the town of Pasadena, Texas, as a kind of microcosm, Rutenberg reveals a conservative, Republican political establishment that sees the demographic tidal wave coming. But instead of adjusting for the future, they’re trying to hold it back.

In Pasadena, the attempt takes the form of the introduction of so-called at-large county seats, pushed by the city’s Republican mayor. Unlike most county seats, at-large ones are determined by a vote the the whole city, not just those voters in the county. As Rutenberg notes, this sounds more democratic. But because Latino turnout is so low, “whites could outvote them every time.”

Considering these two at-large seats helped Pasadena’s mayor maintain his weakening grasp on the City Council, you’d think the bad faith would be obvious. And if it were any year between 1965 and 2013, it’s exceedingly likely that Section 5 of the VRA would’ve allowed the feds to stop it dead in its track (as they’d repeatedly done with similar and earlier proposals). But we now that we live in a post-Shelby country, the rules are different. The mayor’s proposal passed by 79 votes.

Again, this tactic is just one of many. You should read Rutenberg’s piece to learn about some of the more cutting-edge, and thoroughly dystopian, shenanigans being done with the very same big data strategies used so expertly by Obama’s presidential campaigns (the “nudge factor” is especially like something out of “Brave New World”). But any one or two or three-dozen specific tactics of theirs is not what’s important, not in the big picture.

What’s important, instead, is to recognize the boundless energy that the people attempting to suppress the vote are investing in the project; and to recognize that it’s just as much about limiting the freedom of Latino-Americans (present and future) as it is about reversing Obama’s influence on African-Americans. This is a fight many Americans thought was over. It is, unfortunately, anything but.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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