This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
America awaits Supreme Court decisions later this month on two critical cases — the legality of the new citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census and the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts.
And earlier this month, The New York Times reported that these two cases are linked by Thomas Hofeller, a Republican strategist who specialized in gerrymandering. After his death last summer, Hofeller’s computer files were opened up by his daughter. They revealed Hofeller had urged the Commerce Department, which runs the census, to add a citizenship question – and not to help with the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, as the Trump Administration asserts. Hofeller counseled that asking about U.S. citizenship, “would be “advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites” and depress responses from both legal and illegal immigrants, resulting in an undercount.
As the ACLU’s Dale Ho, who argued against the census question before the Supreme Court put it: “Adding a citizenship question to the census would cause incalculable damage to our democracy.”
But the revelation of calculated efforts by Republicans to suppress non-white and Latino votes is sadly not news. These efforts are only manifestations of a decade-long strategy, beginning in 2008, waged by the Republican Party to undercut the central tenet of our democracy, “one person, one vote.”
Why 2008? Well, that’s when, for the first time, some 25% of American voters were non-white. And these non-white voters proved instrumental in electing our first African American president – who also happened to be a Democrat.
Chris Jankowski, a Republican strategist, realized that demography was working against his party, saying, “If we continue to underperform in this multi-racial world that is going to be America, and the white voters are going to be a clear minority, the Republican party will cease to exist.” And Mark McKinnon, a former senior advisor to President George W. Bush said, “The future looked pretty daunting for Republicans at that time (2008). There were those, like me, who said, ‘ya know, we just have to do a better job of being compassionate conservatives and expanding our ranks.’ But there were others that took a route where we kind of go down the road figuring out how you turn out more of your people and less of the other guys.”
So Republicans faced a Hobson’s Choice after Obama’s 2008 win – Plan A: develop policies that appealed to the new and growing non-white demographic of voters or Plan B: find innovative ways to keep a growing percentage of the rising demographic tide of non-white voters from the ballot box.
Republicans chose Plan B. And Plan B evolved over the last 10 years to become a sophisticated and multi-faceted strategy that served the Republicans well on both the state and national level. So how did Plan B play out?
Step One of Plan B was Project REDMAP. This was a Republican-run initiative (with funding coming from the Koch Brothers and their dark money cohorts) to take back state legislatures during the 2010 elections. With a robust investment of about $30 million, REDMAP gave individual Republican candidates hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy political advertising for their statehouse races. It was a political home run – with more than 600 state legislature seats going from Blue to Red and almost 20 state legislative bodies switching to Republican control. Jankowski, who helped conceive and run REDMAP, exulted, “We did what we needed to do in 2010 — which was take dominant Republican control at the state level.”
And 2010 was not just any year, it was the year of the U.S. Census. So, in 2011, with the new census data in hand, Republican state legislatures from Alabama to North Carolina to Wisconsin put into effect Plan B’s Step Two. Working with Jankowski and Hofeller, many REDMAP state legislatures gerrymandered congressional and state legislative districts to try and guarantee continued Republican dominance. Justin Levitt, an election law scholar and associate dean at Loyola Law School, says, “The Republican redistricting after 2010 was a normal mode of politics but amped up on steroids. Amped up on meth.”
The result? By 2017, 10 of North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts had Republican representatives — despite the fact the state has more registered Democrats than Republicans. Not surprisingly, North Carolina is one of the gerrymandering cases the Supreme Court is now considering. But Plan B goes far beyond gerrymandering.
Next came Step Three. This involved red state legislatures passing voter restriction legislation — constricting early voting periods; closing voting sites in urban and other minority areas; and passing new and more restrictive voter ID requirements. As the ACLU’s Ho says, “90% of registered voters have one of those forms of ID in their pockets. What’s the big deal? But here’s the thing, 90% of people have it, that means 10% don’t.”
For Republicans, making it harder for 10% of citizens — who are mostly non-white and mostly poor — to vote will win you more than a few elections. In Wisconsin, which passed its restrictive Voter ID law in 2011, court filings revealed that 300,000 Wisconsin citizens lacked the type of ID needed to vote. Donald Trump won Wisconsin by just 25,000 votes in 2016 — a state not carried by a Republican Presidential candidate in over 30 years.
In 2013, came Step Four. The Supreme Court, by a narrow 5-4 majority, struck down the pre-clearance requirement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This statue mandated that many southern states pre-clear any voting laws changes with the U.S. Justice Department. This case, Shelby v Holder, was underwritten by the same Koch brother cronies who helped fund Project REDMAP.
After Shelby, a number of southern states, including Texas and North Carolina, quickly passed their own voter restriction laws. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, since 2010, some 25 states (almost all of them with Republican legislatures and governors) have enacted new voting laws making it harder for American citizens to vote or register to vote.
Today, the voter suppression beat goes on. Just this spring, the Tennessee legislature, again Republican controlled, made it a criminal felony to register new voters improperly — an effort to undercut large scale voter registration drives. And in Florida, which voted overwhelmingly in November 2018 to enfranchise more than a million felons previously denied the right to vote, its Republican legislature passed what amounts to a new poll tax. Now, before felons register to vote in Florida, they must pay all the back court costs they owe, a fee which can be in the thousands of dollars.
In the past, our federal courts served as the last bulwark protecting citizens from new anti-voter laws. In the summer of 2016, a number of the state voter restriction laws passed since 2010 were struck down or remedied by federal courts — including voter restriction laws in North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin. And in 2016, the federal courts also put a stop to large voter roll purges in Ohio and North Carolina.
Now, with Republican control of the U.S. Senate and White House, Republicans are gaining increasing control over the federal courts — appointing over 100 new federal judges and two new Supreme Court justices. Ron Klain, a key advisor to both Vice Presidents Biden and Gore worries, “Whatever protection against voter suppression is coming from the courts is going to be eroded by the impact of this vast wave of Trump judges.”
Yes, voter suppression is far from new in America — it has a long and ugly history. But over the last decade, as America’s electorate diversified, dangerous and anti-democratic voter suppression tactics are gaining traction in state legislatures, Congress and now, possibly the federal courts. The upcoming Supreme Court decisions on gerrymandering and the U.S. Census question will be a talisman for where our democracy is headed — and whether or not Plan B will be fully realized.
Timothy Smith is a former senior producer for MSNBC and an Emmy Award winner. He’s an executive producer of the documentary, “Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook,” which premieres on Amazon Prime on Tuesday June 25. He is a registered independent.