Why the Republican Push for Black Voters Is (Mostly) Doomed to Fail

As long as the GOP is pushing voter-ID laws that make it harder for African Americans to vote, the party's appeal to identity politics will come up short.

NAACP protestors watch as North Carolina legislators debate a voter ID law in April 2013. (Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

The GOP has a new strategy for turning African Americans into Republicans. Mostly, it focuses on proving that some African Americans already are Republicans. In Michigan, the GOP recently hired an African-American talk-show host to serve as “director of African-American engagement.” For Black History Month, the RNC is airing commercials that “share the remarkable stories of black Republicans.” Last March, in its “autopsy” examining why Mitt Romney lost, the RNC presented a 10-point plan for winning more black votes. None of the 10 involved policy. Five of them involved recruiting more African-American staffers, spokespeople, and candidates.

There’s an irony here. When bashing Democrats, Republicans often decry identity politics. They deride liberals for treating people as members of racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual groups rather as individuals. “I am sick and tired of hyphenated Americans,” declared Rush Limbaugh a few years ago. “It's bullshit. We all want the same things.” But when it comes to winning the votes of African Americans, that goes out the window and the GOP decides that what really matters to black people is not the ideas Republicans espouse but the skin color of the Republicans espousing them.

That’s empirically false. As Nia-Malika Henderson recently pointed out, the biggest factor determining whether African Americans vote Republican isn’t a candidate’s race. It’s his or her views. In 2006, for instance, conservative black Republican Ken Blackwell won 20 percent of the African-American vote in his campaign for governor of Ohio. In 1994, by contrast, a white Republican candidate for the same office, George Voinovich, won 42 percent of the black vote, largely because as mayor of Cleveland he had pursued policies—like desegregating the city’s police force—that African Americans liked.

But there’s a deeper problem with the GOP push to increase the number of blacks who vote Republican: It coincides with a GOP push to decrease the number of blacks who vote at all. Over the last few years, Republicans have pushed an avalanche of voter-identification and registration laws that disproportionately prevent African Americans from exercising the franchise. Since 2011, state legislatures in 14 states (11 of them entirely controlled by Republicans and only one entirely controlled by Democrats) have passed voter-ID laws, despite academic studies showing that such laws are far more likely to prevent blacks from voting than whites.

Republican efforts to curtail early voting also disproportionately hurt racial minorities. In Ohio, for instance, where African Americans often vote on Sundays after church, a judge in 2012 blocked a Republican-led effort to prevent voting during the weekend before Election Day, noting that “low-income and minority voters are disproportionately affected.” That same year in Florida, where studies also show that African Americans are more likely to vote early, the Republican secretary of state cut early voting from 14 days to 96 hours, a decision that was also called discriminatory by a federal judge. State Republican officials are also resisting the Obama Administration’s effort to reinstate voting rights for ex-felons, even though that restriction disproportionately affects African Americans too.

Do the Republicans pushing these restrictions really want to keep blacks from voting? Not exactly. The more likely explanation is that they want to keep Democrats from voting. As the Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania state legislature said in 2012, the requirement for voter ID “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

The problem, of course, is that limiting Democratic voting means limiting African-American voting. And in a country that for much of its history denied African Americans the right to vote, pushing laws that make it harder for African Americans to exercise that right touches the rawest of nerves. As long as many African Americans feel the GOP doesn’t want them to vote, it’s unlikely anything the GOP says to African Americans is going to have much positive impact.

The good news for Republicans is that changing their views on early voting, voter ID, and the voting rights of ex-prisoners doesn’t mean changing their stated ideals. Indeed, when it comes to more conservative constituencies, like members of the military serving overseas, Republicans are quite happy to defend the principle that it should be easier to vote. So when it comes to laws that restrict voting among African-Americans, the choice Republicans must make isn’t ideological. It’s strategic. They can either keep trying to make the electorate more white, or they can begin, seriously, to try to make the GOP more black (and brown).

In the short term, the former is a safer bet. In the longer term, given the way America is changing demographically, it’s suicide. So far, for all their much-hyped African-American outreach, Republicans are still choosing door number one.