One couldn’t help but feel disheartened last night when word came that Hillary Clinton was giving a strong speech in California against Republican voter suppression efforts at the same time as North Carolina’s governor was signing into law a wide-ranging set of new voting restrictions in his state. Together, the two reports brought to mind a deflating question: you mean, the voting wars are going to keep going on even now that Barack Hussein Obama, D-Nairobi, is off the ballot for good?
Yes, they are.
It has been tempting, of late, to imagine a not-too-distant future when the oh-so-polarizing Obama is no longer on the stage and the country can go back to getting along as it used to you, you know, back in December 2000 or 1994 or 1968 or 1863. You see this yearning in some of the Democratic daydreaming about all the states the party could win in a presidential election with a candidate who fared better with working-class white voters than Obama has. It’s ironic, of course, given that a big part of Obama’s whole pitch in challenging Clinton for the 2008 nomination was that he’d be more unifying than she, with all her partisan baggage.
But it also risks being delusional when it comes to the voting wars. Yes, the push for laws to restrict access to the polls has undoubtedly been fueled by the conservative reaction against Obama since 2008. There were 23 laws passed limiting access to the polls in 2011 and 2012. Some of the strongest momentum has come in states that saw big increases in minority turnout in 2008 and 2012, such as North Carolina and Ohio. And, intuitively speaking, it’s not all that hard to draw a connection between anti-Obama birtherism and the kind of sentiment on display in the voting battles, such as this riff from a Florida state senator who said he doesn’t “have any problem making [voting] harder.” He explained: “I want the people in the state of Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who is willing to walk two hundred miles for that opportunity he’s never had before in his life. This should not be easy.”
That said, the voting wars didn’t start with Obama and they won’t end with him. Leave aside the obvious big-picture history going back to Jim Crow and the Voting Rights Act; the modern era of the voting battles started back when Obama was but a humble state senator having trouble getting a rental car at the 2000 Democratic convention. They were an outgrowth of that year’s election, which laid bare just how much voting rules could matter at the margin. Democrats took the election as a lesson to be more vigilant against things like the voting rolls purge that eliminated countless eligible Floridians from the rolls; many Republicans drew the opposite lesson, to do everything possible to crimp turnout among likely Democratic voters, to keep states like Florida from ever being so close again.
Thus, in 2004, we had the spectacle of Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican, rejecting piles of voter registrations because they were printed on insufficiently thick paper and presiding over a shortage of voting machines that predictably caused huge lines in urban precincts, dissuading thousands from voting. Around 30,000 ballots were thrown out due to minor flaws—such as being cast at the wrong table in the right polling location. It was a year later—with Obama but a rookie senator doodling his way through dull hearings—that Georgia and Indiana passed their pioneering Voter ID laws.
Underlying this history is a basic fact: Voter suppression efforts are driven less by the person at the top of the ballot than the person casting it. Regardless of what Chief Justice John Roberts argued in his ruling eviscerating the Voting Rights Act, this country’s long history of racially-driven voter suppression will continue as long as it is in the clear self-interest of one party to engage in it, as it is today when the vast majority of racial minorities vote for the other party. (Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican and the state’s likely next governor, said as much recently when he argued that the state’s redistricting was not racially biased, as a federal court recently ruled, but simply driven by good old partisan revenge.) Even before Obama arrived on the scene, the Deep South was voting along starkly racial lines—John Kerry won a mere 14 percent of the white vote in Mississippi, barely more than Obama’s 11 percent in 2008.
If anything, notes voting-law expert Rick Hasen, the fact that Hillary Clinton may fare better than Obama with white voters in a state like North Carolina only increases the incentive for Republicans there to push for restrictions like those contained in the new law (which not only contains a strict photo-ID requirement but also cuts back early-voting days—used disproportionately by black voters—and eliminates pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds, among other changes.) “If [Hillary’s greater appeal with whites] makes it more likely that she can get elected, then it’s all the more likely to lead Republicans to make it harder for voters who skew Democratic to be able to easily cast a vote,” Hasen told me. Add to that the fact that the numbers, on current trends, are only going to keep turning against the GOP, raising the incentive for the party to do everything it can to tamp down turnout. “Yes, there has been a visceral reaction against Obama,” Hasen said. “But there’s no reason why they would give up on this issue if there is a real or perceived sense that the demographics were working against them.”
So yes, Hillary Clinton is already speaking out against voter suppression because, as my colleague Nate Cohn notes, it is a smart political card to play with Democratic primary voters. But she’s also doing so because voter suppression is going to remain a highly relevant fact on the ground if and when she runs, when the dread Obama is a mere potted plant at the rear of the stage.
Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.