Reshaping the Electorate

The story of the Democratic Party -- at least during those times when the party has advanced progressive causes -- has been a story of expanding the franchise. From the time of Andrew Jackson, when Democrats eliminated the property requirements for white male voting; to the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the labor movement, which together brought millions of new Eastern and Southern European ethnics to the polls; to the civil-rights revolution of the 1960s, the party's electoral fortunes have swelled whenever it's been able to enlarge the electorate. That was certainly the story behind Barack Obama's triumph in 2008, when record numbers of black, Latino, and young voters went to the polls, and behind the Democrats' 2010 senatorial victories in Western states with growing Latino populations.

Often, enlarging the electorate has required changing the laws on voter eligibility -- something Democrats in the ages of Jackson and Johnson (Lyndon) clearly understood. Which is why the Democrats' current inability to secure the legalization of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, or even just the college students and members of the armed forces who would have won legal status under the DREAM Act, is so maddening.

Even absent statutory changes to the immigration laws, of course, the Democrats are profiting from the surge in Latino voting. But it's increasingly apparent that the Republicans are eating the Democrats' lunch in the battle to reshape the electorate for partisan advantage. Faced with the prospect of millions more Latino Democrats, congressional Republicans -- even those like John McCain who had once supported immigration reform or Orrin Hatch who had formerly co-sponsored the DREAM Act -- shifted their stance to one of universal opposition to legalizing any of the undocumented.

Successfully opposing immigration reform is just one element of the larger campaign to shape the electorate to the GOP's benefit. Republicans have long sought, through all manner of statute and subterfuge, to keep minority voters from the polls, and those efforts, if anything, are intensifying. With Republicans now in control of more statehouses, it's a safe bet that the GOP will craft more legal roadblocks to voting -- requirements to present photo IDs at the polls, for instance -- before the 2012 election rolls around.

The other major element in the GOP's campaign to create a more sympathetic electorate is the drive to remove unions from the political battlefield. Republicans' success at blocking the enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) during the last session of Congress ensured that the long march of private -- sector unions toward extinction -- they now make up just 6.9 percent of the private-sector workforce -- would continue apace.

Now Republicans are training their fire against public-sector unions. Newly elected Gov. Scott Walker's campaign to deny collective-bargaining rights to Wisconsin's public-sector unions is, I fear, just the opening gun of a sustained drive to weaken unions throughout the industrial Midwest, long a union stronghold but now, in many states, under right-wing Republican control since last November's elections. Using the budget woes of their states as a pretext, GOP governors are seizing the opportunity to destroy the unions that run the Democrats' biggest and best voter-registration and turnout campaigns. If Walker were truly as concerned about Wisconsin's fiscal plight as he professes to be, he wouldn't exempt the state's police and firefighter unions -- the only Wisconsin unions to support Republicans -- from his ban on collective bargaining.

Come election time, unions invariably punch above their weight. They not only mobilize their own members to vote disproportionately Democratic -- over the years, white male union members have consistently voted Democratic at a rate 20 points higher than their nonunion counterparts -- but they turn out more minority voters than just about all the other get-out-the-vote operations combined. Republicans plainly understand this. That's why they are waging a concerted campaign to keep the minority electorate from expanding and to diminish the size of unions and the role they play.

Would that the Democrats had as clear a sense of their own interests. A number of Democratic senators in the last Congress (Nebraska's Ben Nelson and Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln, to name two) opposed EFCA, even though its defeat plainly and enduringly diminished the Democrats' electoral prospects and the hopes for future progressive reform. The Republicans' growing opposition to all things Latino has its own risks, of course, but their strategic success at shaping the electorate to their own ends, even given the increase in minority voters, is formidable. The same can't be said of the Democrats.

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