Would Republicans rather go down in defeat than diversify?

Rekha Basu
Des Moines Register (TNS)
Restrictive voting laws have been passed in several states. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

What does a right to vote mean? Like most other things in a divided America, it depends on which group you’re talking about, and which party controls the power in a state.

Supporters of Donald Trump, some now in prison for charging the Capitol last Jan. 6, saw a conspiracy of supposedly broken voting machines and state recount refusals as proof their candidate was robbed of a second term as president. Trump kept telling them so.

“If you don't fight like hell,” he told supporters the day of the insurrection, “you're not going to have a country anymore." Then he parted, leaving them to do his dirty work.

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Without evidence of a problem, Trump had pushed Georgia’s Republican secretary of state for a recount, saying on tape: “The people of Georgia are angry … and there’s nothing wrong with saying, you know, um, that you’ve recalculated.”

But an ethical Brad Raffensperger — who along with his wife later got death threats — disputed: “Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is, the data you have is wrong.”

Trump persisted: “So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes.”

Raffensperger would later tell The Guardian that, as a conservative Republican, he wanted Trump to win. “But as secretary of state we have to do our job. I’m gonna walk that fine, straight line with integrity.”

Here’s the irony: Because Trump had disparaged voting by mail, Raffensperger noted, 24,000 Republicans who had voted by mail in Georgia’s primary didn’t vote in the general election. “Democrats really strongly pushed it,” he said. “I hope that, as a Republican, our party becomes very active.”

Blocking access: It has. But in 19 states, Republicans have imposed new voting restrictions, and some legislatures are expected to consider more this year. They’re capitalizing on the failure of U.S. Senate Democrats to approve a new voting rights law combining aspects of the Freedom to Vote Act with some in the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It would have ensured voters across the country had equal access to the ballot box in federal elections.

With the constitutionally mandated redistricting opportunity every 10 years following the census, both parties looked to redraw district lines to benefit themselves. But how that's done in some places is raising concerns about gerrymandering: creating districts to favor one political party or racial group.

In January, around the midpoint of states’ redistricting processes, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law released a report finding that gerrymandering has made Republican-held seats in Republican-controlled states safer by decreasing the numbers of competitive seats. In an effort to retain Republican incumbents in office, "racial and partisan gerrymandering were both prolific,” according to Brennan redistricting expert and senior counsel Michael Li in an interview. “Especially around Texas and North Carolina, things look quite grim for communities of color."

The report cites "unprecedented efforts” to undermine the political power of Black, Latino, Asian and Native American communities, especially in Southern states where protection under Section 5 of the 1964 Voting Rights Act has been gutted. Under it, voting changes in jurisdictions with histories of discrimination had to show they didn't abridge anyone's voting rights because of race, color or language group.

Li says the redrawing of electoral districts after the 2020 census will give political operatives a “chance to kneecap the new multiracial America just as it is being born.” Besides gerrymandering, the burdens on voters of color include shortened voting days and times, difficulties voting by mail, new voter ID requirements and lack of adequate polling places or online voter registration and Election Day registration.

And state-level bars on voting for felons who served their time prevented more than 2 million people from voting in 2020, according to the Sentencing Project.

Between January and July 2021, at least 18 states enacted 30 laws restricting voting access, according to the Brennan Center. Their provisions include making mail voting and early voting harder, imposing tougher voter ID requirements, and making faulty voter purges more likely.

“This wave of restrictions on voting — the most aggressive we have seen in more than a decade of tracking state voting laws — is in large part motivated by false and often racist allegations about voter fraud,” says the Brennan Center. In the states it reviewed that had adopted final maps, the Brennan Center says seven Republican-drawn maps, five Democratic-drawn maps and two commission-drawn maps would have triggered reviews for partisan gerrymandering under the proposed Freedom to Vote act.

Court challenges have been filed in 13 states, and recently Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor vetoed a congressional map prepared by Republican lawmakers, saying it failed “the test of fundamental fairness.”

An irrational world: The voting restrictions affecting people of color are especially vexing because, rather than seek minority votes by, for example, running some candidates of color, Republican gerrymandering practices suggest those states have written them off. This is happening as Asian and Latino people are responsible for much of U.S. population growth — 70% of the growth in the last decade.

In another shift, people of color are moving to suburban areas like the formerly white Gwinnett County, in suburban Atlanta, where white people now make up only 35%. Only 52% of Georgians are non-Hispanic white. In Texas, it's 41%.

"In a rational world," said Li, Republicans might look at how to win more Latinx people who are not a politically monolithic group. Instead, he said, "they dismantled districts of people of color" so as to dilute their voting strength: "Republicans decided to view increased diversity as a threat."

The party could run an Asian Republican candidate for an office but opts instead to gerrymander the district. So not only does the party signal a continued lurch to the extreme right with conspiracy theorists representing it, but it risks becoming obsolete in a nation where communities of color will soon be in the majority.

Not only is that self-defeating for Republicans in the long run, but it forces us to conclude that those in power in the party would rather go down in defeat than diversify.

— Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.