The National Scandal They Didn't Talk About in Tampa


While Republicans and the media were partying at the convention, the GOP's voter suppression efforts got thrashed in court.


History's view of this year's Republican National Convention will become clearer after we learn the results of the November election, of course (and, even then, it may take a few years). But some things we know already will forever be a part of this week's story: Hurricane Isaac, Clint Eastwood, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Ryan -- and the fact that, while Republicans were celebrating in Tampa, federal judges in Washington and Florida were thrashing their efforts to impose restrictive voting laws on registered voters.

By my count, while the GOP partied, six different federal judges this last week of August weighed in on three separate Republican plans to suppress the votes of American citizens. There were two Republican appointees and four Democratic appointees who signed their names to opinions or orders and not a single one of them -- not one -- defended the new state rules they were asked to evaluate. (In the pending trial over South Carolina's new voter ID law, two Bush appointees are sitting on the federal panel along with a Clinton appointee).

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel in Washington unanimously struck down Texas' redistricting plan on the grounds that it violated the rights of minority voters. On Wednesday, a federal judge in Tallahassee said he would permanently enjoin the Florida GOP from enforcing new voter registration restrictions. And, on Thursday, another three-judge panel in Washington unanimously struck down Texas' voter ID law (Judge Rosemary Collyer, a Bush appointee, was part of the panel in both Texas cases).

That the jurists would be so unanimous in their condemnation of these new laws surely comes as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to these cases. The bad "legislative facts" on which they were based, the cynical biases and assumptions they embraced, the sloppy social science they endorsed, the undertone of prejudice, the bureaucratic infirmities, all practically leaped off the briefing pages -- or, as we have seen this week in the South Carolina case, off the tongues of earnest state election officials.

"Don't boo, vote," President Barack Obama has taken to saying during his speeches when he hears his audience reacting to mention of his Republican opponents. What, then, is the Republican response to that message? After ginning up these state laws designed to prevent people from voting -- but only people without cars, or students, or the elderly or ill, or anyone else who can't afford an ID they've never before needed -- how does the GOP now pivot and tell the nation: we want you to vote!?

But were Republicans in Tampa pressed to talk about what was happening to their restrictive voter laws in the world beyond the convention? Hardly. The GOP, remember, proudly adopted these measures last week as part of its platform. The party owns these discriminatory laws now as they fall, one by one, under the sort of scrutiny that happens in federal court (but not in politics). In the world outside Tampa, in the world outside American politics in 2012, facts and evidence still matter.

Which probably explains why "civil rights" weren't much of a talking point this week, except as a means of diminishing the current struggle of the poor to keep the voting rights they thought they had long ago secured. On Tuesday night, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley sang the virtues of photo identification laws, likening the right to vote with the right to buy medicine for a runny nose. She did this just hours after court testimony revealed one measure of the discrimination at the heart of her state's new law.

Then, on Wednesday, Condoleezza Rice, her conscience evidently unsullied by her role in the scandal over the torture memos, and sounding like she wants to be the first black female president of the United States, said that "failing neighborhood schools" are the "civil rights struggle of our day." You already know what Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon, thinks of that theory. Meanwhile, of the millions of minority citizens in America facing disenfranchisement this election cycle due to Republican policy, Rice said nothing.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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