The American public has become more aware in recent years that Republicans are wielding the tool of voter suppression to cement their minority rule in the U.S., but this notion that non-white Americans should be kept from the polls is not a new development.
Republicans took to heart the words of Paul Weyrich, the conservative founder of the Heritage Foundation. In a 1980 speech, he opined: “I don’t want everybody to vote. . . . As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Long after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 seemingly guaranteed African Americans worry-free exercise of their right to vote, Republicans continue efforts to undermine and chip away at that right.
[A]s Carol Anderson demonstrates in her powerful new book, “One Person, No Vote,” the right to vote — a central tenet of our democracy — is under threat. Chief Justice John Roberts has said voting is “preservative of all other rights.” If that is so, then according to Anderson, all our other rights are in serious jeopardy. Her book drills down into how the right to vote is being slowly erased with too few of us noticing.
“One Person, No Vote” is an important sequel to Anderson’s “White Rage,” which examined the nefarious ways white America sought to oppress, repress and marginalize African Americans after the Civil War. The key element of that oppression was an ongoing — and successful — effort to deny blacks the right to vote. Some tactics were less than subtle: poll taxes, literacy tests, limited hours for voting, allowing only whites to vote in primary elections. Other strategies were violent and cruel: Blacks were subjected to rampant voter intimidation and lynchings. Many were incarcerated on made-up charges and then, as felons, denied the right to vote. The deterrents worked. In 1867, just after the Civil War, more than 65 percent of newly enfranchised blacks registered to vote in Mississippi; by 1955, that figure had plummeted to 4.3 percent. The same dismal story was repeated all across the South.
But 100 years after the Civil War, the 1965 Voting Rights Act gave blacks unfettered access to the ballot box. And with its passage , it seemed that the moral universe was, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., bending toward justice — and democracy. By 2008, in North Carolina, a higher percentage of blacks voted than whites.
However, Anderson noted that in the 2016 presidential election, some black voters had gone missing:
In 2016, the number of black voters nationwide dropped from 66 percent turnout to under 60 percent. The decline was even more precipitous in places like Milwaukee, where turnout slumped from 78 percent in 2012 to less than 50 percent in 2016. And thanks to those lower turnouts, Donald Trump carried Wisconsin by a margin of fewer than 23,000 votes.
Rather than an isolated incident, this was part of what Anderson discovered was a “systemic hijacking of our democracy” — beginning after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008.
Republicans then faced a quandary: How should they deal with the rising demographic tide of minority voters? In 1992, nonwhites represented just 13 percent of the voting population — by 2012, they were 28 percent. Republicans had a choice: They could change their policies to appeal to new voters or find a way to suppress their votes.
Anderson catalogues how Republicans, beginning after 2008, put Weyrich’s manifesto into action. Their tactics included purging voters, gerrymandering, instituting voter-ID laws, closing polling places and preventing felons from voting (1.7 million felons aren’t allowed to vote in Florida — representing about a fifth of possible black voters). As Anderson writes, “Voter suppression had now gone nationwide as it became a Republican-fueled chimera that by 2017 gripped 33 states and cast a pall over more than half the American voting-age population.”
“Voter suppression has made the U.S. House of Representatives wholly unrepresentative,” she writes. “It has placed in the presidency a man who is anything but presidential. It has already reshaped the U.S. Supreme Court . . . and as a slew of Trump’s unqualified nominees to the federal bench get greenlighted by a compromised Senate, it threatens to undermine the judiciary for decades to come.” Her conclusion: “In short, we’re in trouble.”