In 2013, when Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote his opinion gutting the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, a key part of his argument was that it wasn't necessary anymore. "The country has changed," he said.
It turns out this argument is somewhat akin to that of vaccine denialists who scoff at the danger of polio, since it hasn't been seen in the United States for many years. Obviously, until the disease is fully eradicated from the entire planet, mass vaccination is all that prevents one unlucky plane flight from creating a roaring polio epidemic.
And what do you know, Roberts' removal of the anti-racism shackles has created a roaring outbreak of racism. In states across the country, Republicans are attempting to disenfranchise as many Democratic-leaning constituencies as possible — especially black Americans. This will be the first presidential election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, and the GOP has demonstrated beyond a shadow of the doubt that the act is barely less necessary now than it was in 1965.
As Scott Lemieux points out, when Roberts wrote his decision he had already been working to destroy the Voting Rights Act for a quarter-century. The way to understand this is as a sustained effort by conservatives to fool the country and themselves into thinking that state-level Republican officials wouldn't snatch the first chance they got to suppress Democratic-leaning voters.
This effort has had two prongs. First, a constant reference to imaginary in-person voter fraud. The fact that this is all but nonexistent and indeed doesn't even make sense as a strategy — as Lyndon Johnson could tell you, an election is stolen by controlling the count, not by getting thousands or millions of people to individually commit serious felonies — is ignored, because it's a pretext. Second, conservatives crossed their hearts and hoped to die that racist disenfranchisement was a part of the misty past, not something that needs protection against anymore.
Now, Roberts' legal reasoning was so ludicrous that he did not even cite part of the Constitution to justify it, and flat ignored the clear authorization for racial suffrage protections in the 15th Amendment. Indeed, the only clear precedent for his decision was Dred Scott v. Stanford (which he did not mention, for obvious reasons).
Unfortunately, that sort of thing is an inescapable part of our legal system. If you get enough partisan hacks installed in the highest court, where what they say is the very definition of what the Constitution means, then there's no stopping them.
However, semi-plausible deniability was key to the GOP's strategy. And now, the partisan and racial subtext behind the new vote suppression efforts in 14 states are so obvious that Republicans are barely even bothering to deny it. Multiple instances of smoking gun evidence have been found, in the form of Republican officials making overt efforts to deny the vote to Democratic constituencies. In Wisconsin, a clerk argued against an early voting station at a local university because "students lean more towards the Democrats." Emails uncovered by Reuters reveal Republicans in North Carolina lobbying hard to cut hours at times when Democrats vote at early voting stations.
Worst of all, communications revealed during legal proceedings revealed North Carolina Republican lawmakers carefully compiling and considering statistics about which locations had large populations of Democrats and blacks, before passing a raft of voting restrictions which are harder for blacks to clear. That prompted a federal judge to conclude they had targeted African-Americans "with almost surgical precision." (And since Antonin Scalia is dead, the Supreme Court won't rubber stamp such nonsense anymore.)
Overall, Roberts' decision means more than 860 fewer polling stations in places with a history of disenfranchisement. State governments in Wisconsin, Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina are ignoring federal court orders to provide proper voting facilities.
These efforts are paying dividends. Black early voting is off sharply in several states compared to 2012 — undoubtedly in large part the result of vote suppression. Some of that might be chalked up to Barack Obama no longer heading the ticket, but it beggars belief to think that explains all of it. In North Carolina, where such restrictions are worst, black turnout is down 16 percent.
Right now these efforts are mainly centered around making voting more of a pain in the neck for the poorer and browner people who tend to vote Democratic (as illustrated in a darkly hilarious video game produced by The New York Times). But I have little doubt at this point they would re-institute fully systematic disenfranchisement if they got the chance. Best to exercise that franchise now, while you still can.