Last week, a judge blocked Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is running a tight gubernatorial race against Democrat Stacey Abrams, from rejecting absentee ballots. Earlier in October, the Supreme Court allowed an suppressive Voter ID law targeting Native Americans in North Dakota to go into effect for Tuesday’s midterms. In Texas, Attorney General Ken has charged a record number of people with committing voter fraud ahead of the midterms. These are just a few of the more recent tactics Republicans have been using to target people of color ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, but they’re familiar by now.
In her new book One Person, No Vote, Emory University professor of African American studies Carol Anderson contextualizes modern voter suppression efforts with a long view of history, showing how the complex, intricate web of tactics stem from the same basic objective that took hold in the Reconstruction. era. “Keep blacks away from the voting booth,” Anderson writers, “disenfranchise as many as possible, and, most important, ensure that no African American would ever assume real political power again.”
Anderson goes on to chronicle how white legislators—first led by Southern Democrats and later by Republicans—maintained a singular focus on preventing black voters from reaching the polls, spreading the myth of voter fraud by playing up racist associations of “crime and blackness together,” and sought to threaten and intimidate people of color who dared to exercise the right to vote. In an insidiously circular, dizzying logic, legislators then pointed to low turnouts to argue that black people were apathetic or too lazy to vote, which they then used to fuel investigations when black people turned out to vote in larger numbers.
Not much has changed: After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the Republican Party’s longstanding efforts to suppress people of color’s voting power went into overdrive. In recent years, you have seen an escalation in false claims about voter fraud and subsequent voter ID requirements meant to “prevent” it, you have seen the systematic purging of voter rolls, and the strategic redrawing of districts that diluted the voting power of people of color.
Ahead of this crucial midterm election, Jezebel spoke to Anderson about the history of voter suppression, what’s on the ballot, and why she still has hope. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: You trace voter suppression to the post-Reconstruction era, when lawmakers were blatant in their desire to prevent black people from holding office, or from having any political power at all. What were the tactics they used, and what traces of those tactics do we still see today?
ANDERSON: I began with the Mississippi Plan of 1890 because one of the things that the white Mississippi legislature wanted to do was to remove African Americans from having the right to vote, to get them out of the elections. First, they called it a progressive measure to end corruption at the ballot boxes. This was a way to maintain the integrity of the ballot box, to ensure the integrity of our elections. That language is like the language we use today.
The Fifteenth Amendment says the right to vote shall not be infringed by the state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. But the state really wants to do it. How do you get around the Fifteenth Amendment?
And so what they did—and it’s what they’re doing now—is that they take the societally imposed conditions on a people and make those conditions the litmus test to gain access to the ballot box. Poverty borne out of centuries of slavery, the denial of “40 acres,” then the Black Codes, and the movement into sharecropping—so you make poverty a litmus test: If people are really invested in democracy, they ought to be willing to pay a small tax in order to keep the democracy afloat—the poll tax. Using poverty as the ticket to vote, you’ve automatically begun to “X” out African-Americans.
They had a backdoor to allow some poor whites to vote—and notice I said some. The grandfather clause said that if your grandfather could vote in the election before 1867, then you too could vote. That was the backdoor method of letting some poor whites in who couldn’t pay the poll tax.
It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the government was really forced to start taking protection of the black vote seriously. But the racist voter suppression tactics never went away, did they?
That was the power of the grassroots mobilization of the Civil Rights movement that was willing to put their bodies on the line to demonstrate the violence of Jim Crow. So much of Jim Crow seemed very methodical, very bureaucratic, very mundane, and so you didn’t see the kind of violence that it did. The American public just didn’t see it. And so the Civil Rights movement was about really putting that violence on display. And it was that violence that forced the United States to say, “Okay we cannot be the Jim Crow leader of the free world.”
But with the Voting Rights Act, that really put the power of the federal government behind enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment, and it did it via pre-clearance, which said states that had a history of discriminating against a citizen’s right to vote now had to get all of their voting changes approved by the U.S. Department of Justice. For the most part, it worked.
And then, it was gutted by John Roberts and the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. And what we see happening in America today is that the voter suppression dogs were let loose. And they’re using the same tactics of the Mississippi legislature in 1890.
The other aspect of Voter ID requirements is that they also make it really hard to physically or financially obtain one. In your book, you talk about recent instances where officials shut down DMV offices in black counties.
So what you do is you create a false obstacle. Oh we’ve got voter fraud, we need ID. And then we create an obstacle to that obstacle. So in Alabama, after they said no public housing ID, then Gov. Bentley, under the guise of fiscal responsibility and trying to balance the budget, shuts down the Department of Motor Vehicles in the Black Belt counties in Alabama. Those counties are the ones that have a sizable, and sometimes majority African American population, and they’re also the poorest counties, so the least-served counties. And they don’t have public transportation. So when you shut down the DMV, you’re requiring people to about 50 miles to the nearest DMV to get the ID. But if you don’t have a driver’s license, and you don’t drive, how are you going to make a 100-mile roundtrip when there’s no public transportation? That is how you look reasonable while being wholly unreasonable. And this happened toward the end of the Obama administration, so the Department of Transportation weighed in, just laid in on Alabama, and Alabama just barely relented. So they opened some of them up, but they opened them up for one day a month, some for two days a month. That’s hardly access.
This election, there are 20 measures in 15 states regarding voting rights, redistricting, and ballot access. Are there any that you are watching particularly closely?
In North Carolina, they’ve got on the ballot six amendments to the state constitution. They are written in language—I think somebody noted that it would take three PhDs to decipher. One deals with Voter ID. The federal courts have said that North Carolina’s Voter ID laws are racially discriminatory. The courts have repeatedly said that. And so now, they’re trying to sneak it in on the ballot and into the constitution with very vague language. So it’s basically saying, in order to protect the integrity of the ballot box, an ID will be required to vote. But the fine print says that we will determine, after this initiative is passed, by a commission, what IDs and how this will work. So again, we see the chicanery there. North Carolina cannot point to a voter fraud problem. This is about how, in 2012, the black voter turnout surpassed that of whites in North Carolina. The legislature moved to shut that down.
And as you write, the voter suppression tactics are working. I think Barack Obama’s victory gave a lot of people optimism about the direction of the country, but when you look at our history, and the history of whose vote counts and whose does not, Donald Trump seems like the logical conclusion of all that.
Yes, and that is why I wrote the chapter on Alabama. Because what voter suppression is designed to do is to demoralize you. Is to demoralize the electorate to make it so difficult to vote that you think it doesn’t matter, that there’s no way that your vote is going to matter. To make it so difficult that you’re having to choose between going to work and being able to make money so that you can keep a roof over your family’s head, or voting on the people who will craft the policies that will govern your life. You’re giving people a Hobson’s Choice there. That’s what voter suppression is designed to do.
That’s why you get limited number of working voting machines in minority precincts. That’s why you get the curtailment of early voting hours and early voting spaces. That’s why you get gerrymandering that creates too many safe districts, and that helps depress voter turnout. It just feels like it doesn’t matter. And that is in this moment, where our votes do matter. They matter tremendously. And that is why we have to turn out in droves.
Democrats Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum could become black governors in two former Confederate states that have a significant histories of black voter suppression. Is there hope for them?
I really do think there’s hope. And I think there’s hope because, I mean, you see such a stark contrast between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp. And Kemp brings fear. That’s all he’s got. Fear of immigrants, fear of somebody—you know, you’ve got to have your gun. Fear, fear, fear. And Stacey Abrams bring hope. She talks about expanding Medicaid so that rural hospitals don’t have to shut down. She talks about going to green energy, and also provide jobs, and a cleaner environment and do what we can to help slow down climate change. So this is the kind of hope that she’s talking about. But what you also see is that you’re looking at a Georgia is demographically changing. So Kemp represents the past. Abrams represents the future. And she has generated incredible grassroots support and incredible grounding.
But Kemp is the master of voter suppression. He has tried every trick in the book. And he has been doing it for years, since he became Secretary of State in 2010. The difference is that this election is so high profile that all of his chicanery—holding voter registrations in electoral limbo because of Exact Match, canceling absentee ballots because the signatures weren’t quite right—and so civil society, just like in Alabama, has been phenomenal in Georgia in holding Kemp accountable. The judges have ruled that you have to count those absentee ballots. People have the right to vote.
Part of the fear—this is why you’re seeing Trump and the Senate Judiciary Committee pushing through all of these confirmations of these federal judges, because the litmus test for them is that they’re anti-Roe v. Wade and they’re anti-Voting Rights Act. So we’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s not just this election. This election is the first stage. Because we’ve got to get people in power who believe in democracy, not people who are afraid of it. The next stage is that, as a citizenry, we must stay engaged and hold these folks accountable. We also have to remove dark money out of the voting process. We’ve got to do that. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But I believe this democracy is worth fighting for.