North Carolina, Texas, and other states with Republican legislatures have passed a series of laws making it harder for voters to register and to vote. In response, the United States Department of Justice has sued these states, claiming that the laws violate portions of the Voting Rights Act protecting minority voters. When party and race coincide as they did in 1900 and they do today, it is hard to separate racial and partisan intent and effect. Today, white voters in the South are overwhelmingly Republican and, in some of the Southern states, are less likely to be willing to vote for a Black candidate than are white voters in the rest of the country. The Democratic Party supports a left leaning platform that includes more social assistance to the poor and higher taxes. Some Republicans view such plans as aiding racial minorities.
Given the overlap of considerations of race and considerations of party, when a Republican legislature like North Carolina’s passes a law making it harder for some voters to vote, is that a law about party politics or a law about race? As I explain, if courts call this a law about party politics and view it through the lens of partisan competition, then the law is more likely to stand, and the fight over it will be waged at the ballot box. If the courts call this a law about race and view it through the lens of the struggle over race and voting rights, then the law is more likely to fall and the fight will be settled primarily in the courts.
The race versus party bifurcation is unhelpful, and the solution to these new battles over election rules—what I call “The Voting Wars”—is going to have to come from the federal courts. Courts should apply a more rigorous standard to review arguably discriminatory voting laws. When a legislature passes an election administration law (outside the redistricting context) discriminating against a party’s voters or otherwise burdening voters, that fact should not be a defense. Instead, courts should read the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to require the legislature to produce substantial evidence that it has a good reason for burdening voters and that its means are closely connected to achieving those ends. The achievement of partisan ends would not be considered a good reason (as it appears to be in the redistricting context). These rules will both discourage party power grabs and protect voting rights of minority voters. In short, this new rule will inhibit discrimination on the basis of both race and party, and protect all voters from unnecessary burdens on the right to vote.