Last week, two new reports -- released by the Brennan Center of Justice at the NYU School of Law and the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication, respectively -- further undermined the conservative media's discredited claims that voter ID laws do not have a discriminatory impact on persons of color and are not intended to be discriminatory on the basis of race. These reports are timely because as restrictive voting rules in conservative-leaning states increasingly materialize, civil rights advocates are noting that these state laws look very much like poll taxes- voter suppression tactics long prohibited. In response, the right-wing media has recycled multiple messages to disavow the impermissible racial discrimination of these laws.
Right-wing media try many different smokescreens in addition to just denying the racial effect of voter ID laws and redistricting altogether. For example, they have disputed the veracity of data to the contrary, argued that these tactics are not in fact barriers, and raised the specter of voter fraud, which experts have demonstrated is practically non-existent. However, it is still the first defense -- that these efforts have no racial effect -- which feeds most effectively into the right wing's preferred "colorblind" narrative.
This right-wing media denial of the racial effect usually has two components in an attempt to whitewash voter suppression, claiming that whatever effect these laws have on communities of color is wholly incidental. That is, there may be a discriminatory impact, but there is no discriminatory intent. Although the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal may have been the most recent mainstream purveyor of this message -- condemning any criticism of the recent wave of conservative-backed voter ID laws as “racial politics” -- they are far from alone in the right-wing media.
Brennan Center Report Undermines Denials of Discriminatory Impact
Fox News' The Five has taken the lead in dismissing the claim that voter suppression in the form of voter ID and redistricting will have an impermissible racial impact, going so far as to call Attorney General Holder's recent comments to the contrary “racist” and “race-baiting” before denying the effect through mockery, as co-hosts Eric Bolling and Greg Gutfeld did on July 11:
BOLLING: Let's talk about Eric Holder yesterday calling voter ID laws poll taxes. It's a lot like the dog whistle is out.
GUTFELD: Yes. I have a joke. How many Eric Holders does it take to screw in a light bulb?
None. Basic light bulb maintenance is designed to keep minorities down.
This is the fact, the message is minorities can't make their way to the DMV. This is the soft racism of lowered expectations. He really doesn't think minorities can get ID. That's sad. [Fox News, The Five, 7/11/12, via Nexis]
Fox Business' Lou Dobbs has also assisted in this messaging. On his July 10 show, he hosted serial states rights' litigant Texas Attorney General Abbott, responding to his guest's comments by “context[ualizing]” the right-wing suggestion that the problem isn't the racial effect but the unsubstantiated national problem of voter fraud:
ABBOTT: [I]f you look at the claims made by Eric Holder's lawyers themselves, they are claiming that a certain number of people are disenfranchised by this law in the state of Texas. Well, that number includes more than 50,000 people who are already dead. So it seems as though they're trying to protect the voting rights of corpses here in the state of Texas.
DOBBS: And to put this in some further context, the Pew Research Center pointing out there's two million persons dead, or deceased, if you would like to be more delicate, whose names still appear on voting rolls across the country. I mean -- and then this Justice Department sues the state of Florida because they want to purge their list of names that they believe to not be valid voters! [Fox Business, Lou Dobbs Tonight, 7/10/12, via Nexis]
These types of “colorblind” denials force civil rights organizations to constantly present new evidence that these voting restrictions are impermissible because of their disproportionate effect on communities of color. Following up on its earlier reports, the July 17 Brennan Center report is already being highlighted for its up-to-date analysis. According to the study, The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification, which studied these new voter ID laws that will affect “11 percent of eligible voters who lack the required photo ID” in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin:
1.2 million eligible black voters and 500,000 eligible Hispanic voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office open more than two days a week. People of color are more likely to be disenfranchised by these laws since they are less likely to have photo ID than the general population.
More than 1 million eligible voters in these states fall below the federal poverty line and live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office open more than two days a week. These voters may be particularly affected by the significant costs of the documentation required to obtain a photo ID. Birth certificates can cost between $8 and $25. Marriage licenses, required for married women whose birth certificates include a maiden name, can cost between $8 and $20. By comparison, the notorious poll tax -- outlawed during the civil rights era -- cost $10.64 in current dollars.
The result is plain: Voter ID laws will make it harder for hundreds of thousands of poor Americans to vote. They place a serious burden on a core constitutional right that should be universally available to every American citizen. [Brennan Center, 7/17/12]
University of Delaware Survey Undermines Denials of Discriminatory Intent
Of course, denying racial intent has always been easier, especially when it's combined with the charge that concerns for the civil rights of affected voters is a demonstration of “moral obtuseness,” as Rich Lowry did in reference to Attorney General Holder in a March 13 New York Post article. Because finding the smoking gun of an unconstitutional racial motive is essentially an inquiry into the accused's mindset, it remains notoriously difficult to substantiate. The right-wing media therefore has ample rein to dismiss out of hand that there is any impermissible racial intent in voter suppression techniques.
Fox News digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt promoted this argument in a June 26 article on Fox News' website, insinuating any claims of voter suppression on the basis of race is “politics” :
Holder's record certainly suggests he is sincere in his belief that white conservatives are actively trying to oppress minorities. This does not look like spin from him. This looks like a crusade, not a campaign trick.
But from Pelosi and others there is a strong emanation of political gamesmanship leading up to this eventual question: If it is racist to hold Eric Holder in contempt, isn't it also racist to vote Barack Obama out of office? [Fox News.com, 6/26/12]
Others in the conservative media have been more than happy to answer Stirewalt's “question” with a resounding “no” before going further and attacking anyone who would "falsely" impugn the motives of voter ID backers. For example, conservative defenses have ranged from characterizing voter suppression claims as "crazy," "whining," or "divisive yarns." Some are even angrier: regular Washington Times columnist Robert Knight went so far as to accuse NAACP president Ben Jealous of “treason” for noting current voter suppression efforts at a United Nations session on human rights.
Precisely because the denying of discriminatory intent can be done relatively free of rebuttal, as sober as the Brennan Center analysis is as to the discriminatory impact (an effect also being noticed by both federal and state courts), it is the survey from the University of Delaware that may draw more attention. Based on a recent national poll, the survey is reporting findings that these restrictions on voting may -- despite protests from the right-wing media -- be “strong[ly]” correlated to discriminatory intent, even after “controlling for the effects of partisanship, ideology, and a range of demographic variables.” From the press release for the national survey:
A new National Agenda Opinion Poll by the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication reveals support for voter identification laws is strongest among Americans who harbor negative sentiments toward African Americans.
Voter ID laws require individuals to show government issued identification when they vote. The survey findings support recent comments by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who portrayed a Texas photo ID law now being challenged as similar to poll taxes used in the Jim Crow era, primarily by Southern states, to block African Americans from voting. Holder pledged to oppose “political pretexts” which, he said, “disenfranchise” black voters. [University of Delaware Center for Political Communication, 7/18/12]