GOP war on black voters quietly re-ignites: New ploys show it's not just ancient history

How the long history of Southern states trying to disenfranchise African-Americans got an ugly new boost this month

Published September 25, 2014 10:58AM (EDT)

Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, John Roberts                                   (Reuters/Brendan McDermid/AP/Larry Downing/photo collage by Salon)
Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, John Roberts (Reuters/Brendan McDermid/AP/Larry Downing/photo collage by Salon)

When Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, he said “our country has changed,” arguing that the circumstances that led to the initial formula for preclearance was no longer valid because the country had overcome much of its racial prejudice. But in the year immediately following the decision, many Southern conservatives have shown that many of the prejudices that prevented blacks from voting in the past are still manifesting themselves today through attempts to suppress the vote of minorities.

In Georgia, DeKalb County announced it would allow voting on the last Sunday of October, making it the first time the state would have Sunday voting. Sunday voting is immensely popular with African-American Voters, who frequently participate in “souls to the polls,” where African-American churches often coordinate voting on Sunday.

But state Sen. Fran Millar cried foul, calling it a “blatantly partisan move” because DeKalb is located near black churches. While it is true that in many Southern states, many Democratic voters are African-American (Georgia boasts the only white Democratic congressman in the Deep South), Millar’s crowing shows that to many, any attempt to increase black voter turnout must be illegitimate or the effect of some scheme. Millar’s sentiments did not end there. On his Facebook page, he further commented that he would “prefer more educated voters than an increase in the greater number of voters.”

Millar’s sentiments sounded like echoes of Georgia’s past. In 1906, Hoke Smith campaigned on disenfranchising black voters and followed through when he helped amend the state constitution to require a literacy test in the state. For so many white Georgians, black voting was a threat to their identity and the power structure. Similarly, today, those like Millar know more voting by minorities will be a threat to their livelihood and don’t think the masses are educated enough to exercise their rights.

Earlier this month, Democracy North Carolina, a left-leaning good government outlet, released a report showing that 454 provisional ballots in the state were denied in the state’s primary last May because voters could no longer use same-day registration or because they voted out of their precinct, both of which were eliminated by the voter ID law the General Assembly passed last year. Furthermore, the study showed that while 45 percent of those whose ballots were not counted were white -- unsurprising in a state with a sizable white population -- 39 percent of the voters whose ballots weren't counted were black.

The invalidation of votes in provisional balloting due to a lack of same-day registration does disproportionately affect blacks since 70 percent of African-Americans who voted in 2012 used early voting. In addition, African-American voter turnout in 2012 in the state was 70.2 percent, which was higher than white and Latino turnout.

Attempts to put roadblocks on out-of-precinct voting and same-day registration are a way of trying to delegitimize the votes of African-Americans, which has a long history in the Tar Heel State. In 1898, shortly after taking control of the Legislature, white Southern Democrats stormed the city of Wilmington, then a city with two-thirds African-American population, and burned down the building of a city newspaper and overthrew the city's elected municipal government as a means of intimidation, leaving at least 14 African-Americans dead.

To those in power in North Carolina, the idea of black empowerment was seen as an illegitimate encroachment on their power. In turn, the state constitution was amended with a “grandfather clause,” which allowed voters who were able to vote before 1867, and whose father or grandfather was able to vote before then, to skip literacy tests and poll taxes, and the voter must register by 1908. Obviously, many black voters did not have this right before 1867, given their previous status, and as result they were subjected to literacy tests and poll taxes.

Likewise, the additional hurdles on in-person early voting in North Carolina, passed in 2013, were accompanied by an expansion of absentee voting access; they were also accompanied by an increase in mail-in ballots, which have historically been popular with Republican voters in the state. Then, just as now, laws that work to make voting more difficult for minorities find ways to exempt those voters who are seen as legitimate in their eyes.

It is no coincidence that Georgia and North Carolina are states with largely shifting politics that could put Republicans in peril. In Georgia, Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn and gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter are competitive in a Republican stronghold. Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan is in a hotly contested race with North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, who was speaker when the voter law was passed.

African-Americans are a vital constituency for Democrats, and Republicans are aware of this. In turn, these attempts are working to hobble mostly Democratic constituents. But more than that, they send a message that African-American voters are not legitimate members of society and any attempt on their part to vote should be met with suspicion. In that sense, these two Southern states have not changed that much and are carrying on in a long and sordid tradition.

By Eric Garcia

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