The Republican Party claims to be the party of small government — with the obvious exceptions of denying marriage equality and massive government oversight of women’s medical decisions. But there is another kind of big government that the party has overwhelmingly, enthusiastically gotten behind: expensive and intrusive attempts to make it harder for Americans to vote.
A trio of federal court decisions in Florida, Ohio and Texas last week ripped the lid off the increasingly successful right-wing campaign to limit opportunities for low-income people, minorities and students to vote — especially, and not coincidentally, in swing states. These decisions, from even-handed and moderate federal judges across the country, show just how far the Right has gone to use the power of government to disenfranchise traditionally disenfranchised groups.
In Florida, a federal judge permanently blocked a law that had made it almost impossible for good government groups to conduct voter registration drives — which had led groups like the venerable League of Women Voters to all but shut down operations in the state. In Ohio, a federal court ordered the state to reopen early voting in the three days before November’s election, which Republicans had attempted to shut down. Early voting on the weekend before the election was enormously successful in 2008 — especially among African Americans — and the judge found that Republicans had no legitimate reason to want it to stop.
And finally a federal court, which is required to review changes in election policy in states and counties with a history of voting discrimination, ruled that Texas’ new voter ID law couldn’t go forward because it "imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas."
The effort that Republican governors and legislatures across the country have gone through in the past two years to make it more difficult for citizens to vote is truly remarkable. They have been willing to buck both the law and the spirit of our constitutional democracy to bar groups of people from participating in it. And they have been willing to set up extra layers of government and bureaucracy — things they claim to despise — in order to keep people from the polls.
There are plenty of areas of genuine disagreement in our politics, but the right to vote shouldn’t be one of them. In an interview with The Atlantic last week, Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the Civil Rights movement, said "there should be public outcry" and a "sense of righteous indignation" at what is happening to our elections. He’s right.
It’s astounding that nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act banned racial discrimination at the polls, it’s still needed as a shield against such egregious violations of its principles. And it’s astounding that the self-proclaimed party of small government wants to use government’s power to keep people from exercising their fundamental right to vote.