by Chavis Jones
The chains of racialized voter suppression remain unbroken in America “land of the free.” The supposed shining light of freedom for all the world to see can’t seem to catch its breath although political developments are illuminating voter suppression tactics to disenfranchise Black voters.
Many assumed that the declining health of our civic virtues would improve immediately when Donald Trump left the White House. Many were wrong.
The vote is once again under attack in statehouses all over America. While (most of us) are masked up, the voter suppression tactics of those fearing shifts in power have once again been unmasked.
Same playbook, different day.
The vote is the air democracy breathes. It is not the only important aspect of American democracy, but it is the function through which most others should be made possible. That is, the vote should be a reflection of the will of the people, and politicians should govern as an extension of that will.
This has never been fully true, but some forces within our nation are working to ensure that it never holds true.
Rather than fight for the vote, they fight against the voters with punitive and in some cases illegal voter suppression practices.
In the final days of the Trump administration, we witnessed the death rattles of a petulant presidency and an assault on democracy by followers who have made themselves in this demagogue’s image and likeness.
On January 20th he was gone. No oval office, no Twitter, no more press conferences praising insurrectionists, seditionists, or “good people” on the wrong side of white supremacy.
But we can’t relax. The consequences of voter suppression are detrimental and contrary to the democratic process.
As in Greek mythology, when you successfully remove a head of the hydra–the multi-headed beast faced by Hercules – you won’t have long before other heads of the enemy emerge. When you cut off one head, two or more grow back.
Removing a MAGA hat from the White House was just one such head covering of the supremacist, anti-democratic, exclusionary, and incompetent leadership that often surfaces in America. It was not the first, it was not the only, and we’ve quickly learned that it won’t be the last.
Throughout American history, whenever marginalized groups have broken down barricades of power and opportunity, there has always been hate and fear motivated backlash from those who previously benefitted from the hoarding of power.
When the Civil War ended, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were passed during a brief period of Black empowerment and political power called Reconstruction (1863-1877).
For the first time in American history, there were unprecedented numbers of Black homeowners, Black business owners, and even Black politicians. State legislatures were filled with Black men who were just steps removed from plantations. There were Black U.S. congressmen, two Black senators, and even a Black governor among the 2,000 or so formerly enslaved elected officials during that time.
Those extraordinary men and women contributed to some of the most progressive pieces of legislation in the history of our nation.
In the controversial presidential election of 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to Samuel J. Tilden but managed to become President through a narrow electoral college victory.
Southern politicians, fearing change, agreed to give him the electoral vote if he would remove the federal troops from the South that helped ensure the possibility of safety and prosperity for formerly enslaved Africans as they danced with freedom for the first time.
Hayes agreed to remove this protection and an early era of Black prosperity ended immediately.
In the years following, elected officials and cowards wearing head coverings (sometimes the same people) worked to strategically cleave the rights of Black “citizens” from their hands and the hands of their children’s children, ushering in the era of Jim Crow.
There were poll taxes, literacy tests, burning crosses, and repeated instances of government-sanctioned mob violence, all in the name of maintaining an evil status quo and preventing African-Americans from accessing the right to vote.
They figured if they could consistently suppress the vote, they could permanently steal power.
It would be nearly a century before their children’s children would win the rights guaranteed to them through the Civil Rights Act of 1963, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Federal Housing Act in 1968.
Same playbook, different day.
When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, many feared America as they knew it would never be the same. The rise of Trump and the uncritical support of many of his most fervent followers were, in many ways, a response to fears that festered during those Obama years.
And the vote, particularly the Black vote, was suppressed once again.
State legislatures quietly participated in partisan gerrymandering that would ensure minorities would have little power to influence the vote. They drew lines such that Republican power could be maintained even if large numbers of liberals turned out to vote. They enacted racialized voter ID laws akin to those during Jim Crow, and strategically closed voting precincts in Black and other minority communities to ensure longer wait times and to discourage voters.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that North Carolina legislators drafted laws to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” in part because of voter ID laws, the elimination of same-day registration, and cuts to early voting.
Not only did these insidious voter suppression tactics help usher in the Trump presidency, but they led to the questionable defeat of Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and the conservative packing of state legislatures and Capitol Hill alike.
Now, here we are, following the unceremonious exit of Donald Trump, a failed insurrection, and many assumed we’d turned the page on a new day, but the same playbook of suppression and exclusion has reared its ugly head.
After historic voter turnout during a pandemic, one would think those who love America would celebrate such an expression of democratic strength. Yet, 43 states have introduced over 250 pieces of legislation combined to ensure the restriction of the vote. This includes states like Georgia, which was crucial in the presidential election and in the historic and timely elections of Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively.
Senator Warnock, in his maiden speech from the Senate floor on March 17th, spoke to dangerous trend of voter suppression saying, “Make no mistake, this is democracy in reverse. Rather than voters being able to pick the politician; the politicians are trying to cherry-pick their voters.”
Each of us deserves the right to vote, and unlike those who tacitly supported the attacks on January 6th, we cannot stand idly by as another sacred American institution is under siege.
In days past, unpatriotic politicians strategized around the suppression of the vote in backrooms. They robbed America of democracy in the dark. Those days are no more.
We will organize, we will speak out, we will shine a light on a lineage of endemic suppression, we will call our elected officials, we will join civic organizations, we will support long overdue legislation to help our democracy breathe fresh air for the first time, we will not be denied, and we will secure the vote for every American.