In 2008, Barack Obama squeaked out an unexpected win in Indiana thanks in part to his huge margin of victory in Marion County, which has a large population of black Democrats. The state’s Republicans got to work right away, cutting early voting in Marion County, which includes the state capital of Indianapolis, while expanding it in a nearby suburban county filled with white Republican voters.
That’s the distressing but entirely predictable upshot of a blockbuster report published by the Indianapolis Star on Thursday. The Star found that between 2008 and 2016, Republican officials reduced the number of early voting stations in Marion County from three to one, resulting in a 26 percent decline in absentee voting in the 2016 presidential election. (Early votes are cast via absentee ballots.) Meanwhile, officials added two early voting stations to the neighboring Hamilton County, which is populated primarily by white Republicans. The county saw a 63 percent increase in absentee voting in 2016. There is now one early voting station for every 100,000 voters in Hamilton County and one for every 700,000 voters in Marion County. In total, the number of people who voted in Marion County decreased by 11,261 between 2008 and 2016 and increased in Hamilton County by 27,376—this “despite an increase of registered voters in both counties,” the Star reports.
Republicans’ assault on Marion County voters was methodical and coordinated. First, in 2010 and 2012, the lone Republican on the county’s election board blocked efforts to maintain three voting sites for federal elections, reducing the number to one. Then, in 2013, the Republican-dominated state Legislature passed a law that effectively barred “counties with populations over 325,000” from opening more than one early voting site. The bill was obviously designed to target Marion County, in addition to Lake and Allen counties, which also have sizable minority populations. County election boards could only override the law with the unanimous consent of all members. The Republican member of the Marion County election board has consistently refused to allow the opening of more than one early voting site.
A lawsuit filed by Common Cause Indiana and the NAACP’s Indianapolis branch alleges that Marion County’s early voting rollback disproportionately burdens black citizens’ right to vote in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection and Due Process clauses, as well as the Voting Rights Act. Similar suits have succeeded before: In July 2016, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s “monster” suppression law, which, among other things, slashed early voting in predominantly black areas. The court wrote that North Carolina’s law, which was passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, seemed to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
The unfortunate reality is that Republicans are suppressing minority voting rights with such speed and expertise that the occasional legal victory cannot reverse the broader trend. After the Supreme Court’s Republican appointees gutted the VRA in 2013, many jurisdictions newly freed from federal oversight promptly cut early voting and reduced the number of polling places in minority areas. It is extremely difficult to challenge these closures in the absence of a robust VRA.
And even the occasional legal victory may prove short-lived. When the 4th Circuit blocked North Carolina’s attempt to roll back early voting, Republican-controlled county election boards implemented the new restrictions anyway. When Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper defeated McCrory, these boards should have fallen under Democratic control. But due to a racial gerrymander that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled to be unconstitutional, Republicans hold a supermajority in the general assembly. The GOP was thus able to pass a law to prevent Democrats from taking control of county election boards and restoring early voting. The North Carolina Supreme Court blocked that law—so Republican legislators tweaked it and passed it again.
The GOP’s campaign against minority voting rights is resourceful and relentless. Republicans across the country recognize that a fully enfranchised electorate poses a grave threat to their grasp on power. In response, they have initiated a nationwide effort to make it as difficult as possible for minorities to cast a ballot. Marion County provides one blatant example of this phenomenon. But the reality is that similarly egregious voter suppression has already become the norm in much of the United States.