US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

When Supreme Court Justices pull an all-nighter, chances are something big is going down. That was the case on Saturday when, just after 5 a.m., the high court announced Texas could go forward with its new voter ID law. Accompanying the decision was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent. The dissent laid bare the pretense of the law’s stated purpose, that stricter voting controls were needed to secure public confidence in the election. “The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case,” she countered, “is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.”

There is little question that hundreds of thousands of voters in Texas — and millions across America — risk being disenfranchised by a spate of new voter ID laws. And the sophistry of “voter fraud” has been punctured by the mounds of evidence showing such fraud is vanishingly rare. Since voter ID laws began popping up in the early 2000s, their true purpose has been clear: to help Republicans win election. Republicans have at times admitted as much, like when Pennsylvania’s House Majority Leader crowed that the state’s voter ID law would “allow Governor Romney to win.” What Republican lawmakers have been less willing to admit is that their motivation is not just anti-Democratic, but anti-democratic.

“The sacramentalization of the act of voting represents the worst of the democratic impulse and contributes to the ongoing conversion of our republican institutions into so many tribunes of the plebs,” wrote the National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson on the eve of the 2012 election. His disdain for “the plebs” led Williamson to advocate for a slew of voting reforms: the severe restriction of absentee ballots, the repeal of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (the “Motor Voter Act”), and abolition of the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Such reforms would make it harder to vote, but that was precisely the point: “If we end up with fewer voters, we may yet end up with better elections.”

This squeamishness about mass voting is part of a broader conservative discomfort with mass democracy. Take the recent push to repeal the 17th Amendment. Ratified in 1913, the 17th Amendment established the direct election of senators, who had previously been appointed by state legislatures. Since 2010, a number of big-name conservatives have arrayed themselves behind the repeal, including Justice Antonin Scalia, Sen. Ted Cruz and radio talk-show host Mark Levin. Proponents of repeal placed states’ rights ahead of democratic processes. In justifying his call for repeal, one conservative writer explained, “The Constitution did not create a direct democracy; it established a constitutional republic. Its goal was to preserve liberty, not to maximize popular sovereignty.”

That “republic-not-a-democracy” sentiment has deep roots in modern conservatism. The slogan of the John Birch Society, it captured conservatives’ wariness about mass democracy. In the early 1960s the right furiously denounced Supreme Court rulings on congressional apportionment that established a “one man, one vote” principle. And the Voting Rights Act of 1965 received special opprobrium. As Geoffrey Kabaservice showed in "Rule and Ruin," a history of the decline of moderate Republicans, Sen. Barry Goldwater believed the Voting Rights Act would be the “end of democratic processes and the republican form of government we have so long enjoyed.” Another conservative Republican argued, in language reminiscent of today’s battles over voter ID laws, that “the more of these people who are pressured into registering and voting, the greater our party will suffer.”

Yet this skepticism about democracy and universal suffrage never receives top billing when conservatives call for voter ID laws. In part, that’s because open opposition to voting doesn’t go over well with the general public, as conservative writer Matthew Vadum discovered in 2011 after his piece “Registering the Poor to Vote Is Un-American” generated intense backlash. And in part it’s because conservatism’s anti-democratic strain coexists uneasily with its anti-establishment populism, a contradiction that the movement has never reconciled. Thus William F. Buckley in 1965 could claim he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty, while at the same time insisting “what is wrong in Mississippi is not that not enough Negroes have the vote but that too many white people are voting.”

Unable to craft an anti-democratic message that is both ideologically consistent and publicly palatable, Republicans instead fall back on the canard of voter fraud. That justification has grown rickety in recent years, and its collapse seems almost inevitable. But with an election just two weeks away, numerous discriminatory voter ID laws remain in place, with the potential to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Americans. That reality is keeping Justice Ginsburg up at night. It should keep the rest of us up as well.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report