Enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 brought to a close a period of overt racial discrimination and voter suppression. It also created a seismic shift in the alignment of the political parties: The Dixiecrats, Southern Democrats who supported the suppressive Jim Crow laws that were outlawed by the new federal statutes and who opposed any civil rights reforms, left their party and joined with conservative Republicans behind the banners of states’ rights and a smaller federal government. This alliance formed the basis of the movement that carried Richard Nixon to the White House in 1968 and Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, and it formed the foundation of a political realignment that came to dominate our politics over the last half century.
It didn’t take long for the remade GOP to absorb the ideas and tactics of the Dixiecrats. In a lawsuit filed after the New Jersey gubernatorial election in 1981, the Democratic National Committee accused the Republican National Committee and the state GOP of establishing a “ballot security program” intended to intimidate minority voters. One part of the program, which Republicans defended as an effort to prevent voter fraud, included hiring off-duty police and sending them to polling places with armbands labeling them part of a “National Ballot Security Task Force”. To settle the lawsuit, the Republican National Committee agreed to a consent decree in which a federal district judge placed sharp restrictions (see “Background” section) on any “ballot security” initiatives undertaken by the RNC purportedly to prevent voter fraud.
Nevertheless, in the ensuing decades, even as Republicans in Congress overwhelmingly voted with the Democrats on three occasions to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, at the state level they continued to modify election laws in the name of combating fraud, ignoring substantial evidence that such incidents of fraud are few and for the most part have little to no impact on election results.
At the same time, the GOP brought several legal challenges to the Voting Rights Act and the consent decree. In 2013, almost 50 years after the voting rights act went on the books, the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder neutered the heart of the law. Four years later, the consent decree restricting GOP ballot security initiatives expired.
In Shelby, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional one of the central provisions of the Voting Rights Act: the formula used to determine which states and localities had such bad records of political discrimination that they were required to get advance approval from the Justice Department or a federal court (called “preclearance”) for any changes in election laws, voting procedures, or political boundaries.
The 5-4 majority decided that the evidence of past discrimination used to designate the nine states — mostly in the South — and portions of six other states that were then subject to preclearance was too far out of date. This has had the effect of rendering the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act unusable until the formula is updated. The court made clear Congress was free to come up with a new preclearance formula, but it has not yet done so.
Within hours of the high court’s decision, Texas announced it would implement a strict voter photo ID law that had previously been struck down and that its redrawn district maps would go into effect without approval from the federal government. Two other states, Mississippi and Alabama, also began to enforce a strict voter ID law that had previously been barred under the Voting Rights Act.
Over the next five years, the US Commission on Civil Rights found that at least 23 states enacted newly restrictive voter laws. And by 2018, there were 1,173 fewer polling places in jurisdictions formerly covered by the preclearance requirements.
The end to the consent decree also had clear consequences. In the months before the 2020 election, Reuters, the New York Times, and others reported that Republicans were mounting a coordinated campaign to recruit an “Army for Trump” to monitor polling centers not just on Election Day but also in places that allowed early in-person voting – essentially the same behavior that prompted the judge to impose the restrictions 40 years earlier. Initial reports suggested that organizers hoped to attract as many as up to 50,000 volunteers with a focus on battleground states including Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. However, ProPublica reported just days before the election that the “Army of Trump” had not materialized in any substantial form.