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What Mitt Romney’s 47-Percent Speech Tells Us About Voter Suppression

Like all great works of literature, Mitt Romney’s peroration on the unwashed 47 percent requires multiple readings if you want to appreciate its rich complexity. One meaning that eluded me initially was its implicit rationale for the voter suppression Republicans are promoting in the name of fighting election fraud.

If “there are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what” because they are “dependent upon government” and “believe that they are victims” who “are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,” and if the only sensible thing for Romney to do is “not to worry about those people” because “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives”—if all that is true, then ignoring them really isn’t going to be enough. Not if they constitute fully 47 percent of the electorate. You need to block their path to the polls. Nothing too overt here—just a little petty harassment. They aren’t the best-organized people to begin with, so all you have to do is shut down their ministers’ souls-to-polls bus operations on Sundays, require a driver’s license and maybe even proof of citizenship. That sort of thing.

I’m not suggesting that national voter suppression efforts are being directed out of Romney’s campaign headquarters. If they were, Romney, who’s famous for mastering the data, would have a better grip on who those never-gonna-vote-for-Romney voters are. (As several commentators have pointed out; they arent the 46.4 percent who don’t pay income tax, many of whom—a lot of the elderly, for instance—don’t much care for Obama.) Whether these unreachables constitute fully 47 percent of the population I couldn’t say (though I’d wager they more likely do today than before the Boca Raton video went viral).

As it happens, the threat posed by voter suppression has diminished somewhat in recent weeks, with important legal victories in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. It’s a sign of how brazen the GOP’s efforts are that northern courts are swatting them back, even without the “pre-clearance” Voting Rights Act tool available to plaintiffs in the south. If the Republicans lose the presidential election—and it’s looking pretty likely that they will—they should re-think their strategy of cherry-picking the electorate, because in addition to being illegal it doesn’t work very well. If 47 percent of the population doesn’t like you, it’s worth wondering why.