The Republican push to make it more difficult to vote this year -- seen by many as a racially tinged attempt to keep Democratic turnout down -- could not have failed more spectacularly, a top African American activist told a left-leaning think tank Tuesday.
Chanelle Hardy, a vice president at the National Urban League, told an audience at the Center For American Progress in Washington that, as conservatives had suspected, there was a drop-off in enthusiasm among the African American electorate between 2008 and 2012. Republicans based a lot of their strategy on enthusiasm dips like these, assuming that Obama wouldn't be able to maintain the same level of minority turnout he had enjoyed in 2008.
Unfortunately for those Republican strategists' plans, however, other Republicans in legislatures across the country were on a quest to impose restrictions on voting, chasing the ghost of in-person voter fraud.
Those Republican legislators flipped a switch with the African American vote, Hardy said, rekindling whatever enthusiasm had waned after 2008's historic Obama win.
"We'd been struggling for many years in our communities with how we make the argument that our parents and grandparents had handed down to us: 'you must vote, because people fought and died for you to have the right to vote.' It starts to become a little less motivating the further away you get away from those really visceral memories of what it took to get to the polls," Hardy said. "But then you bring back a 35 state assault on our ability to vote and it starts getting really reminiscent. All of the things our parents were telling us and our grandparents were telling us become visceral to a new generation."
Concerns about voter suppression certainly wasn't the only thing driving African American turnout in 2012, Hardy said, but it helped pull out some voters who were maybe not feeling as fired up as they were four years ago.
Hardy was part of a CAP panel focused on the coalition that elected Obama to a second term and how to maintain it going forward into the legislative fights of the next Congress and elections beyond that. On the panel with her was Jeremy Bird, field director for the Obama campaign.
As he noted, the voting restrictions boomeranged on Republicans in another way beyond motivating minority voters to the polls. The laws kept failing in the courts, meaning that although Bird says OFA was prepared to deal with them in places like Florida, they didn't have to for the most part.
Democrats may not have the same luck in 2014, Bird warned.
"Some of these voting laws that didn't bark weren't in effect because we had pushed them off in the courts," he said. "But they will be in effect for the next election. And we have to overcome those."
Lawmakers in several battleground states are keeping up the push for voter ID laws, and the panel said it's likely the laws will be a part of future campaigns. The Obama campaign helped give progressives some of the tools to fight off the laws in 2012, Bird said, but it will be a new hurdle Democratic allies need to be ready for.
"We overcame [voter ID] this time with a lot of organizing and a lot of great organizations working on it," he said. "But it's going to be a challenge for folks."