Dear Chief Justice John Roberts: Our Country Has Not Changed

Rescue workers aiding victims of the car attack in Charlottesville.
Rescue workers aiding victims of the car attack in Charlottesville. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Trump’s embrace of racist extremism is not just troubling for our country in the present moment, it’s even scarier when you consider the politicos who see it as a winning campaign strategy for 2018 and beyond. Picture all the baby Trumps mimicking their grotesque idol, and weep for our republic.

To understand this extremism, and to fight it, we must return to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The killing in Charlottesville, the violent outbursts by emboldened white supremacists, and Trump’s utter failure to condemn domestic terrorism, offers yet another chance to reflect on how we got here. We can start with recent Supreme Court history, when it struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, which allowed nine, mostly Southern states, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. In the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “our country has changed,” and he argued that many of the “extraordinary measures” in the Voting Rights Act were no longer justified.

Yet here we are in 2017: camouflaged racists with semiautomatic weapons marched through Charlottesville, and one of them plowed his car through a crowd of counter-protestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

On Sunday, a discussion began on Twitter as to whether Roberts (and Justice Anthony Kennedy) would like to revisit their decision.

Ari Berman’s outstanding 2015 book Give Us the Ballot offers a deep history of voter suppression in the United States, and it makes clear that we must fight the rights for all Americans to vote if we are to ever take the country back from a President and a party that winks at the white supremacy.

Republicans may “privately wince” at Trump’s moral failure, but their actions to disenfranchise voters lit the torches in Charlottesville. They fostered an environment where the white vote matters more, and convinced those voters they are under attack from people who don’t look like them. In his book, Berman explains that Obama’s 2008 election led to a spate of new, restrictive state voting laws:

In 2011 and 2012, 180 new voting restrictions were introduced in forty-one states, with twenty-seven new laws taking effect in nineteen states, nearly all of them controlled by Republicans. The right to vote had become deeply politicized. The country hadn’t seen anything like it since the end of Reconstruction, when every southern state placed severe limits on the franchise.

The election of the first black president and the resurrection of new barriers to the ballot box were not a coincidence. “The proposal of restrictive voter-access legislation has been substantially more likely to occur where African-Americans are concentrated and both minorities and low-income individuals have begun turning out at the polls more frequently,” reported a study from the University of Massachusetts–Boston.

“As minorities grow in the political process, it’s in the interest of one of the parties to tamp down voter turnout,” said Mel Watt. “It’s the same system that other people went through when there were poll taxes and literacy tests. This is just another iteration of that.”

Before 2010, only Indiana, Georgia, and Missouri had passed strict voter ID laws. Nine states controlled by Republicans adopted them following the 2010 election: Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The accelerated push for voter ID laws didn’t emerge from nowhere. In 1980, Paul Weyrich, the tart-tongued first director of the Heritage Foundation, convened a gathering of fifteen thousand evangelical Christians for Ronald Reagan. Acolytes described Weyrich as “the Lenin of social conservatism.” He said in his speech: “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

Get the book