Political parties, when they suffer a major defeat, like to assess what has gone wrong, either personally, through deliberations of the teams of leading figures, or as part of an establishment-ordered review. It was the deliberations of Kinnockites and, latterly Blairites, which again made Labour electable in the 1990s. The Republican Party, coming off the back of two significant defeats at the Presidential level and a loss of two seats in the Senate and nearly a dozen seats in the House, has decided to review the way the party works and make recommendations. The eye-catching recommendations – to the media, anyway – are the proposed curb on debates. But there are recommendations, too, concerning the party’s outreach to minorities. According to exit polls, Obama won 93% of African-Americans, 71% of Hispanic voters, 73% of Asian-American voters and 58% of ‘other’ voters. Whilst the party undoubtedly has some talent in elected office – after appointed Sen. Mo Cowan leaves office in the summer, the only African-American Senator will be a Republican, whilst Republicans have double the number of Hispanic senators Democrats do – it still struggles in elections.
The Party’s approach, in general, has been to say that they simply need to present their positions better. That Hispanics, many of whom are Catholic, are socially conservative and once Republicans actually start campaigning for their votes – and the vote of similarly socially conservative black Protestants – they will start winning elections again. This move, of course, would require a move on the part of some to embrace immigration reform, which is why the Gang of Eight are hashing out a compromise on immigration reform in the Senate, and conservative Fox television personality Sean Hannity flipped on immigration shortly after the election. But the main policy tenets of the Republican Party are supposed to stay the same. But is this the right approach? There are many policies opposed by the Republican Party which benefit Hispanic, Asian and African-American voters, and, perhaps more importantly, policies supported by Republicans which actively disadvantage Hispanic, Asian and African-American voters.
Take voting, for example. After the 2010 elections, as documented by various leftish media outlets, good government groups and Aaron Sorkin’s drama The Newsroom, Republican governors elected in the wave of that year passed strict Voter ID laws, designed to combat voter fraud. These laws are popular because, whilst we may as a society present ourselves as cynical and uninterested in politics, we are all interested in keeping up the integrity of our democratic system, which is also why ethics laws and term limits are highly popular. Indeed, polls regularly show that over 70% of those surveyed support Voter ID laws. Voting fraud, however, has never been revealed to be a serious problem. To quote Propublica, an investigative journalism organisation:
There have been only a small number of fraud cases resulting in a conviction. A New York Times analysis from 2007 identified 120 cases filed by the Justice Department over five years. These cases, many of which stemmed from mistakenly filled registration forms or misunderstanding over voter eligibility, resulted in 86 convictions.
There are “very few documented cases,” said UC-Irvine professor and election law specialist Rick Hasen. “When you do see election fraud, it invariably involves election officials taking steps to change election results or it involves absentee ballots which voter ID laws can’t prevent,” he said.
An analysis by News21, a national investigative reporting project, identified 10 voter impersonation cases out of 2,068 alleged election fraud cases since 2000 – or one out of every 15 million prospective voters.
This is not a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It’s the legislative equivalent of using the Hammer of Thor to grind a tiny piece of peanut in to even smaller pieces.
The laws, especially the strict photo ID versions, disadvantage minority voters, and poorer voters, because of the cost of ID and the difficulty of obtaining ID – when offices are only open at certain times, often when low-income workers are doing shifts – adversely affect these voters in ways that would not be the same for, for example, a middle class housewife. Indeed, as noted in the Atlantic, Texan Hispanic voters are between 46.5 and 120% less likely to possess a valid form of identification as defined by the Lone Star State. Opponents of the law claimed that these laws would hinder 10 million Hispanic voters, whilst a report in the Huffington Post highlighted a study stating that 1 million young minority voters could be affected. Laws in various states were struck down or put on hold by the Justice Department and the courts. The Obama campaign (who arguably had the most to lose from Voter ID laws, given that the majority of minority voters are strongly Democratic) had prepared for this and responded forcefully, boosting black turnout in crucial precincts in Ohio to deliver a close win for the President. It is still too early to know what effect the laws had on minority and poorer voters in 2012, particularly given the Obama campaign’s efforts.
But the fact that these laws appear to adversely affect minority voters more than any other section of American society is enough to make African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans think twice about voting Republican in any sort of large numbers. On its own, perhaps, it would be easy to brush this off as an unpleasant side effect of a well-intentioned law. Indeed, I’m sure many legislators are supporting this because they genuinely care about the integrity of the democratic process. But when minority voters hear about Republican politicians talking about ‘anchor babies’, or expressing discomfort with the idea that black voters may vote in rural Maine, or when they hear prominent, elected Republicans question the President’s birthplace, they may feel justified in not feeling particularly welcome in the Republican Party. Of course, none of this is to say that Republicans are not a welcoming party. Or that they are inherently say stupid or cruel things. Most importantly, none of this is to say that they are racist, as some have claimed. Abraham Lincoln holds a totemic position in race relations in the US, and Everett Dirksen played an irreplaceable role in passing the Civil Rights Act. They aren’t and don’t. (Democrats stay stupid things, too.) But there seems to be more tolerance in Republican circles for measures and language which alienates voters from minority communities. Part of this is a reflection of the constituencies that Republicans now represent – largely white, economically depressed and worried about immigration. But these constituencies are disappearing, and minority voters are increasingly exercising political power. If Republicans want to extend their appeal to minority voters, they have to seem like they are governing for the whole nation and resist measures like Voter ID laws, which seem too focus on minority voters much too harshly. Otherwise, they may find themselves relying on a base which is dying and may not be reborn for years to come.