In 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts gutted a key section of the Voting Rights Act by deploying a dubious legal doctrine with no textual roots in the Constitution, arguing that racism was a thing of the past. In 2019, after a flood of partisan voting laws targeting Democratic constituencies, the conservatives on the Court gave their blessing to partisan gerrymandering, in effect granting Republicans permission to discriminate on the basis of race so long as they argued that they were targeting voters because they were Democrats, not because they were Black. In 2021, the Court continued its effort to read the Fifthteenth Amendment out of the Constitution, finding that barely any discriminatory restrictions would run afoul of the Voting Rights Act absent the most concrete proof of intent to discriminate. The trend is consistent; as long as plausible deniability is maintained, any discriminatory act is kosher. Given that most of the Court’s conservatives supported the Trump administration’s attempt to use the census to effect a nationwide racial gerrymander even after the racist intent behind the scheme and subsequent cover-up was revealed, the conservative wing’s definition of plausible deniability is generous to the point of incredulity. 

Democratic complacency can be explained by several factors. One is that, by themselves, voting restrictions have sometimes backfired, motivating the targeted constituencies to show up rather than have their votes suppressed. Another is that the ideological divisions within the caucus mean that Democrats remain short of the necessary votes in the Senate to change the rules in the chamber, which would allow them to pass voting-rights legislation with a simple majority. A third is the fact that many in the Democratic Party take Black votes for granted because they believe that racism in the Republican Party gives those voters no viable alternative. Too many Democratic Party leaders think nothing of demanding that Black voters show up in numbers sufficient to rescue American democracy every election and then do little to secure the rights of their most loyal constituents once they are elected.

If the Democratic Party is not upholding a racist double standard with its inaction, it is at least acquiescing to one. The targeted constituencies must treat every election cycle as though their fundamental rights are on the line, listen to Democratic leaders compare the voting restrictions targeting their right to the franchise as “the new Jim Crow,” and then watch those same leaders do nothing with the power they are given except tell them to simply out-organize those attempting to deprive them of their right to vote.

This pattern cannot be repeated forever. Eventually, Republicans will figure out effective schemes for minimizing the power of Democratic constituencies in order to limit the impact of so-called blue waves at the ballot box. It does not matter how many Democratic votes are cast if those votes are gerrymandered into vote-sinks that preserve Republican majorities at the state and federal levels. Organizing cannot overcome laws that allow partisan election officials to refuse to certify victories when their party is defeated. And if Republican legislatures pass proposals allowing state houses to overturn the results, the question of who wins the most votes will become moot. Historically, such attacks on the franchise have not succeeded indefinitely, but they can still have immediate and catastrophic consequences for historically marginalized communities whose votes no longer matter to those in power.

Should these Republican restrictions succeed, they will not only strengthen the ability of the GOP to win without a majority of the electorate—they will also shape the electorate itself by enhancing the political power of the GOP’s base at the expense of the rest of the country. That would move the political leadership of the United States significantly to the right of where it is today. The rhetoric of Democratic Party leaders portrays this as a crisis of democracy, particularly for the constituencies they claim to serve. Their inaction suggests otherwise. {read}