Jim Crow lives on in efforts to block African-American and Latino voters

Republican-dominated states revive pre-Civil Rights Era tactics to suppress voting

By Terry H. Schwadron
Published June 25, 2019 7:30AM (EDT)
 (Getty/Joe Raedle)
(Getty/Joe Raedle)

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Among the seemingly endless email appeals for political money, we all receive was one inviting participation on behalf of Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, Democratic candidate for governor and the only Democrat elected to statewide office in the last 16 years.

That sounded standard. Here’s the twist: Mississippi is the only state that requires a candidate must win both the popular vote and a majority of the state’s various state assembly districts, which are considered heavily gerrymandered in favor of white, Republican voters. Indeed, a federal lawsuit by three African-American state voters seeks to block what it calls the state’s racist method of electing the governor and other statewide officials, arguing that the requirement to win both a majority and at least 62 of 122 districts is a form of “intentionally and effectively dilutes African-American voting strength.”

The challengers are supported by the Voter Protection Project, which argues that the rules are aimed at suppressing black voters.

Hmm. That sounds uncomfortably familiar. Indeed, more states are reaching out to a wider variety of local laws and actions all seemingly meant to suppress the power of voters of color.

Voter suppression among states almost certainly helped Trump win the presidency, argues The Atlantic magazine. Multiple academic studies and court rulings indicate that racially biased election laws, such as voter-ID legislation in places like Wisconsin, favored Republican candidates in 2016. Like most other elections in American history, this one wasn’t a fair fight, the magazine says. A new poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and The Atlantic has uncovered evidence of deep structural barriers to the ballot for black and Latino voters, specifically in the 2016 election. More than that, the survey finds that the deep wounds of Jim Crow endure, leaving America’s democratic promise unfulfilled.

Gutting the Voting Rights Act

It was in 2013 that the Supreme Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. The court decision was along ideological lines with the two sides drawing sharply different lessons from the history of the civil rights movement and the nation’s progress in rooting out racial discrimination in voting.

At the core of the disagreement was whether racial minorities continued to face barriers to voting in states with a history of discrimination. Famously, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, “Our country has changed. While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

In the four years since, rule changes to make voting more difficult has become a cottage industry for states across the nation.

In Georgia, for example, Democrat and former State House Majority Leader Stacey Abrams argues that she narrowly lost that state’s governor’s race last year because of different, but similarly race-oriented voting irregularities. As a result, she has formed Fair Fight Action to challenge laws and procedures in her state and beyond through public actions and lawsuits.

The range of registration issues, closing of polling places, absentee ballot problems in Georgia has drawn the attention of the House Oversight Committee, which has vowed to investigate “recent reports of serious problems with voter registration, voter access, and other matters affecting the ability of people in Georgia to exercise their right to vote.”

But you could look to Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and other states for similar complaints. In reaction to the Supreme Court decision, states, particularly in the growing number of states with Republican control over state legislatures, have felt less constrained about launching new voter identification laws, about selectively closing polling sites and other measures that tend to suppress rural and black voters.

Among the issues raised in a panoply of lawsuits have been complaints of being forced to wait to vote, absentee ballots that never arrived, being turned away at polls over exact name matches or other clerical means, voter registration limitations and vote switching at the balloting sites.

While not exactly voter suppression techniques, states have also been active in gerrymandering voting districts to favor Republicans over Democrats. Many lawsuits have resulted, with some making it to a reluctant Supreme Court, which has sent state voting plans back to the state to demand rewrites for fairness.

Fighting back

In Florida, new laws and administrative practices have made it more difficult for people to register to vote, and are challenged by the League of Women Voters. The state is going through a fight now about registering released state prisoners.

In Texas, state officials were purging Latinos from the voter rolls, seemingly arbitrarily striking Latino-sounding names as potentially illegal immigrants, until the practice was stopped by the courts. Texas and Indiana were out front with requirements for photo identification cards to vote. In one instance Indiana’s photo ID law barred 12 retired nuns from voting because they did not have photo IDs. John Borkowski, a South Bend lawyer volunteering as an election watchdog for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said, “This law was passed supposedly to prevent and deter voter fraud, even though there was no real record of serious voter fraud in Indiana.” Similarly, opponents to the Texas law argued that there had been no problem in voter fraud that was being solved by a photo ID law.

A federal judge found that Wisconsin’s restrictive voter ID law led to “real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities”; and, given that there was no evidence of widespread voter impersonation in Wisconsin, found that the law was “a cure worse than the disease.” In addition to imposing strict voter ID requirements, the law cut back on early voting, required people to live in a ward for at least 28 days before voting, and prohibited emailing absentee ballots to voters. A study by Priorities USA, a progressiveadvocacy group, estimates that strict ID laws in Wisconsin led to a significant decrease in voter turnout in 2016, with a disproportionate effect on African-American and Democratic-leaning voters.

A Republican political operative in North Carolina faced criminal charges after an organized campaign to interfere with absentee ballots. He offered to fill out ballots as a convenience for people, who complained that they never got a chance to vote.

In Kansas, a state judge struck down a law requiring voters to show proof of citizenship. The order to register the voters affected more than 18,000 voters. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach ordered that the voters be registered, but not for state and local elections before a local judge struck that down as well. Kobach went on to be tapped by Trump to serve as head of a national but futile search for voter fraud involving illegal immigrants and to lose a bid to become governor.

Whatever Chief Justice Roberts was thinking in 2013 about the end of a need for voting rights, the creativity and imagination of Republicans to keep voters whiter and more conservative says otherwise.

Terry H. Schwadron

MORE FROM Terry H. Schwadron

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