The Votes That Weren’t Cast
The fundamental right to vote has been a core value of Black politics since the colonial era — and so has the effort to suppress that vote right up to the present moment. In fact, the history of the suppression of Black voters is a first-rate horror story that as yet shows no sign of ending.
While Democrats and progressives justifiably celebrated the humbling defeat of some of the most notorious election-denying Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms, the GOP campaign to quell and marginalize Black voters has only continued with an all-too-striking vigor. In 2023, attacks on voting rights are melding with the increasingly authoritarian thrust of a Republican Party ever more aligned with far-right extremists and outright white supremacists.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the insurrection of January 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington was also an assault on minority voters. In the post-election weeks of 2020, insurrection-loving and disgraced President Donald Trump and his allies sought to discard votes in swing-state cities like Atlanta, Detroit, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Phoenix. Those were all places with large Black, Latino, or Native American populations. It was no accident then that the overwhelmingly white mob at the Capitol didn’t hesitate to hurl racist language, including the “N” word, at Black police officers as that mob invaded the building.
For years, Republican lawmakers at the state level had proposed — and where possible implemented — voter suppression laws and policies whose impacts were sharply felt in communities of color nationwide. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “At least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting,” laws invariably generated by Republican legislators. These included bills to limit early voting, restrict voting by mail, and even deny the provision of water to voters waiting for hours in long lines, something almost universally experienced in Black and poor communities.
While normally pretending that such laws were not raced-based but focused on — the phrases sound so positive and sensible — “voter integrity” or “election security,” on occasion GOP leaders and officials have revealed their real purpose. A recent example was Republican Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Robert Spindell, one of three GOP appointees on the six-person commission that oversees that state’s elections. He openly bragged that the “well thought out multi-faceted plan” of the Republicans had resulted in a dramatic drop in Black voters in the 2022 midterm elections, including in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, which is about 40% African American. He wrote: “We can be especially proud of the City of Milwaukee (80.2% Dem Vote) casting 37,000 less votes than cast in the 2018 election with the major reduction happening in the overwhelming Black and Hispanic areas.”
How Far Might Voter Suppression Go?
You undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn that, rather than develop policies attractive to voters of color, the GOP and conservatives generally have chosen the path of voter suppression, intimidation, and gaming the system. And if anything, those attempts are still on the rise. In 2023, less than a month into the new year, according to the Guardian, Republicans across the country have proposed dozens of voter-suppression and election-administration-interference bills in multiple states.
Republican state legislators in Texas alone filed 14 bills on January 10th, including ones that would raise penalties for “illegal” voting, whether committed knowingly or not. More ominously, one Texas proposal would fund the creation of an election police force exclusively dedicated to catching those who violate voting or election laws. That unit would be similar to the draconian election-police unit created in Governor Ron DeSantis’s Florida as part of what is functionally becoming a regime dedicated to a version of right-wing terror. Symbolically enough, for instance, Black ex-felons were disproportionately targeted by DeSantis. Although the campaign was launched with great fanfare, only a few generally confused ex-felons were arrested and most of them had been given misinformation by state officials about their eligibility to vote and were convinced that they had the right to do so.
But DeSantis never really wanted to stop the virtually nonexistent crime of voter impersonation or fraud. His goal, and that of the GOP nationally, has been to strike fear into the hearts of potential non-Republican voters to ensure election victories for his party.
In states like Alabama, Mississippi, and 20 others where the GOP controls both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion, intimidating voter-tracking police squads could be the next play in an ongoing effort to undemocratically control elections. Such policing efforts would without question disproportionately target communities of color.
While the expected midterm “red wave” of Republican victories didn’t occur nationally in 2022, the same can’t be said for the South. As documented by the Institute for Southern Studies’ Facing South, the GOP actually outperformed expectations, expanding its hold on multiple state legislatures in the region. Prior to the election, analysts had predicted that the Republicans might gain 40 seats across the South; in fact, they gained at least 55. Not only did they take control of at least 25 state legislative chambers — the lone exception, Virginia’s state senate where Democrats retained a two-seat majority — but they also built or maintained supermajorities in legislative chambers in Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia. This means that even if a Democratic governor is in office, Republican legislators can pass extremist bills into law despite a gubernatorial veto.
None of this is spontaneous, nor is it random. Tens of millions of dollars or more from super-rich conservative donors and right-wing foundations have poured into voter-suppression and election-manipulation efforts. Heritage Action for America, a conservative legislative-writing group linked to the Heritage Foundation, spent upwards of $24 million in 2021 and 2022 in key swing states to help Republicans write bills that would restrict voting, targeting Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, and Texas. Consider it anything but a coincidence that the language in voter-suppression bills in those states and elsewhere sounded eerily familiar. As the Guardian reported, at least 11 voter suppression bills in at least eight states were due, in part or whole, to advocacy and organizing by Heritage Action. A New York Times investigation found that in Georgia, “Of the 68 bills pertaining to voting, at least 23 had similar language or were firmly rooted in the principles laid out in the Heritage group’s letter” that offered outlines and details for how to limit voting access.
Contemporary voter suppression efforts, however, go significantly beyond just trying to prevent people from voting or making it harder for them to do so. Credit that, at least in part, to the determination of so many Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans to vote despite restrictions imposed by the states. Consequently, Republican legislators now seek to control — that is, manipulate — election administration, too. Their tactics include the harassment of election workers, far-right activists seeking positions as election officials, and various other potentially far-reaching legal maneuvers.
In fact, in recent voting, attacks on election workers, officials, and volunteers have become so prevalent that a new national organization, the Election Officials Legal Defense Network (EOLDN), was formed to protect them. EOLDN provides attorneys and other kinds of assistance to such officials when they find themselves under attack.
Meanwhile, a flood of far-right activists has applied for positions or volunteered to work on elections. Neo-fascist Steven Bannon and other extremist influencers have typically called for such activists to take over local election boards with the express purpose of helping Republicans and conservatives win power.
Finally, GOP leaders in multiple states have been pushing an “independent state legislature” doctrine that argues such bodies have the ultimate power to determine election outcomes. They contend that governors, state supreme courts, and even the U.S. Supreme Court have no jurisdiction over non-federal elections. Their fanciful and erroneous reading of Article 1, Section 4 and Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution suggests that state legislatures can not only overturn the will of voters in a given election but select electors of their choice in a presidential contest, no matter the will of the voters.
In past decisions, Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and the late Antonin Scalia indicated that they were at least open to such a reading. A firm decision on this matter may occur in that court’s current session in the case of Moore v. Harper. Court watchers are split on whether the court’s conservative majority might indeed embrace that “doctrine” in full, in part, or at all in ruling on that case later this year.
Much of this dynamic of voter suppression is the result of the failure of congressional Democrats to carry two voting rights bills across the finish line. Black activists are all too aware that the Democrats blew the opportunity to pass such legislation during the last two years when they controlled both chambers of Congress, even if by the slimmest of margins in the Senate. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (JLVRAA) and the For the People Act (FtPA) were each game-changing bills that would, in many ways, have blunted the massive efforts of Republicans at the state level to institute voter restrictions and other policies that result in the disproportionate disenfranchisement of African Americans, Latinos, young people, and working-class voters generally, all of whom tend to vote Democratic.
The JLVRAA would have restored the power of the Voting Rights Act to prevent the very passage of voter suppression laws taken away by the Supreme Court in 2013 in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. The FtPA would have banned partisan gerrymandering, expanded voting rights, and even supported statehood for Washington, D.C. Those bills were aimed specifically at countering the hundreds of voter-suppression proposals in Republican-controlled state legislatures.
In its final report, the January 6th committee actually blew a chance to highlight the attacks on Black voting rights. That report’s full-scale focus on the role of Donald Trump, who certainly was the key instigator of the insurrectionary events at the Capitol and its chief potential beneficiary, ended up obscuring the role of racism and white nationalism in the stop-the-steal movement that accompanied it and was so crucial to Republican election deniers. It should be remembered, though, that Trump’s central argument and the biggest lie of all was that Black, Latino, and Native American votes should be thrown out in Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, and other urban areas in states like Arizona and Nevada where he was rejected by overwhelming numbers.
Unfortunately, the January 6th report didn’t sufficiently identify white supremacy as a driver of the “stop the steal” movement. Despite the prominence of certain Black faces among the Trump camp, including conservative organizer Ali Alexander, Trump campaign aid Katrina Pierson, and former Georgia legislator Vernon Jones, January 6th, in fact, represented the culmination of months of attacks on Black campaign workers, especially in Atlanta and Detroit. President Trump explicitly fired up white nationalists by name-checking and endangering individual African American election workers as spoilers of his alleged victory.
The movement in some democratic states to follow Trump’s autocratic playbook is now also metastasizing globally. In Brazil, on January 8th, thousands of followers of the defeated far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro attacked government buildings in Brasilia. Newly elected President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has had to confront a surging wave of election deniers in the early days of his administration. And it’s important to note that Lula’s voters were disproportionately from the north and northeastern regions of Brazil, areas with deep concentrations of Black and indigenous communities.
In the United Kingdom, in 2022, the Conservative Party pushed through legislation that requires photo identification to vote in future elections beginning in May 2023. As with Republican legislation in Texas, student IDs will not suffice, creating a new obstacle for a constituency that tends to vote for the Labour Party. In a country where many working-class people don’t have drivers’ licenses and the state does not easily provide acceptable IDs, voter suppression is operative.
A democracy agenda that recognizes the racial elements of voter suppression and election denial is sorely needed. At the federal level, President Biden and Congressional Democrats should prioritize keeping the issue alive, while forcing Republicans to divulge their undemocratic hand, until the Democrats (hopefully) fully take back Congress in 2024.
At the state level, Democrats who have momentum from their victories in 2022 need to consolidate and strengthen voting-access laws and policies. In Michigan, for example, where the GOP had for years used its control of the state legislature to pass outlandish, racist laws that generated significant harm for Black communities, the recent Democratic sweep should mean a new voting day.
Former President Trump and the rest of his crew, as well as state versions of the same, are sadly enough in a significant, if grim, American tradition. Isn’t it time to focus more energy on how to stop their urge to suppress the Black vote?
Clarence Lusane, a TomDispatch regular, is a political science professor and interim political science department chair at Howard University, and Independent Expert to the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance. His latest book is Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Democracy (City Lights).
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