Southern Discomfort

The GOP wants to rebrand the party to attract black voters, but red-state Republicans aren’t helping matters.

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory meets supporters outside Myers Park Traditional Elementary school during the U.S. presidential election in Charlotte.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, center, meets supporters in Charlotte. McCrory, a Republican, signed a voter ID law while the GOP is trying to rebrad itself to black voters. Awkward.

Photo by Chris Keane/Reuters

On Monday, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed an omnibus voting standards bill into law. In a video message, he talked only about the voter ID portion of the law and assured citizens that only “the extreme left” opposed the law, for its usual crazy, extreme reasons. He neglected to mention that he’d just cut back on same-day registration and in-person early voting. Hours later the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued the governor, arguing that he and legislators had “evidence that African-Americans used early voting, same-day voter registration, and out-of precinct voting at higher rates than white voters.”

On Wednesday, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul spoke at the Louisville Forum and fielded a question about voter ID bills. “The interesting thing about voting patterns now,” offered Paul, “is in this last election African-Americans voted at a higher percentage than whites in almost every one of the states that were under the special provisions of the federal government. So really, I don’t think there is objective evidence that we’re precluding African-Americans from voting any longer.”

While Paul was speaking, the Republican National Committee announced a special 50th-anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It would take place a few blocks from the Capitol, and feature the party’s lone black member of Congress, state legislators from Oklahoma and Louisiana, the party’s black committee members, and two once-rising black Republican stars who lost their last elections.

Nobody said rebranding would be easy, but this is excruciating. National Republicans want to win black voters, and to let it be known that those voters are welcome on Team Reagan. “Shaking black hands and kissing black babies would reassure nervous white voters that Republicans are not bigots,” wrote the black conservative pundit Deroy Murdock this year.

If only the Republicans who’ve won power in red states would go along with it. When the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a trove of mostly Southern counties no longer had to clear their electoral laws and maps with the Justice Department. The result: voter ID laws freed from limbo in Mississippi and South Carolina, new bills passed in Texas and North Carolina, and denunciations from the NAACP. All this while the Republican National Committee continues to campaign in court against an old consent decree that prevents either party from launching “ballot security” programs without notice.

“Republicans have not always been savvy about making these arguments,” says Artur Davis, a former Democratic congressman from Alabama who switched parties in 2012, campaigned for Mitt Romney, and backs voter ID laws. “The voter ID movement has been damaged by extremists who argue that Obama somehow stole both elections, or clowns like the Pennsylvania legislator who bragged with no evidence to support the notion that a voter ID law would kill Democrats in Pennsylvania.”

There’s no question that the clowns hurt the cause. In theory, and in most polls, up to 80 percent of voters in any state back voter ID. In Pennsylvania, as the controversy over the state’s rushed law mounted and the commonwealth fought off a lawsuit, support dipped to a bare majority. Worse, for Republicans: Anger over voter ID and restricted early-voting times galvanized black voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. I saw it anecdotally in 2012, when I interviewed pastors getting ready to lead early-vote drives or stepped through swollen, mostly black lines of early voters in Ohio’s cities. Florida’s organizers called it “Operation Lemonade” (as in “when life gives you lemons”), and they drove up black turnout when Republicans were sure it would teeter.

The result? Rand Paul said it: Black turnout (66 percent) was higher than white turnout (64 percent), so there’s no proof that votes are being suppressed, and no reason to fear that they might be. It’s a little bit like taking Advil off the shelf because a widely predicted spate of headaches failed to occur, somehow.

In the short term, the risks of a backlash look intense. In the long term, Republicans can probably live with that. In 2008 and 2012, sure, they pulled low-single-digit numbers with black voters, and they lowballed black turnout. Those elections happened to feature the first black nominee of a major party. In 2004, when the Democrats nominated a white ticket, their campaigners waved the bloody shirt of Bush v. Gore and reminded everyone of how black voters had been purged unfairly from the rolls.

The blood didn’t splatter on the GOP. In Florida the Bush vote among blacks jumped from 7 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2004. In Ohio, where Secretary of State Ken Blackwell became infamous for botched voter registration forms and long lines, Bush’s share of the black vote nearly doubled from 9 percent to 16 percent. That was the ways of things, pre-Obama: A Republican candidate who’d expanded Medicare and showed up to talk to black pastors could make at least a small play for black voters.

Bush’s party, obviously, is a little different from the GOP of 2013. Today’s black Republicans want the party to show their peers that they don’t want to suppress votes. Louisiana state Sen. Elbert Guillory, a party-switcher who’s speaking at the RNC’s “I Have a Dream” event, says the party should come out in favor of restoring voting rights to former felons.

“There is no reason to disqualify individuals because they’ve gotten into difficulty,” he says. “They’re still Americans, they’re still citizens, they still have to pay taxes, they still get called to defend our nation in times of peril.”

Artur Davis agrees with that. “Republicans should be aligned with the movement to restore voting rights to nonviolent released felons as long as they are complying with conditions of supervised release,” he says. “No conservative ought to have a principled objection to an ex-felon being able to earn his way back into being a full-fledged citizen.”

Maybe that’ll come up as the GOP celebrates an anniversary that’ll launch a thousand soft-focus features on racial togetherness. Or maybe former Rep. Allen West, who’s also booked for the celebration, will insist again that black Democrats are trapped on a “plantation” of “liberal social welfare policies and programs.” That’s a winning message, too, depending on who gets to vote.