“The right to vote is everything in a democracy.
Without influence over power, you are completely vulnerable to that power. There is no way to access prosperity or ensure personal protection when you live in a society in which people who share your interests are inhibited in their political participation.
So the current efforts by Republicans across the country are a chilling omen as well as an eerie echo.
Since the time Black people gained the right to vote during Reconstruction, racist white people have been trying to strip as many of them of that right as possible. In fact, disenfranchising people of color and immigrants is the overwhelming history of voter suppression in this country.
White people not only wanted the power that resulted from winning elections, they insisted on the power to shape the electorate that could participate in elections.
It was done by intimidation and terror. It was also done by law and ordinance. No one wanted “Negro domination” or the possibility that the Black vote could be determinative.
Black people dealt with those efforts at voter suppression, in a direct way, for nearly a century, until the successes of the civil rights movement led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But no sooner did some barriers come down than others went up. Up sprang mass incarceration, a phenomenon that disproportionately affected Black people and again stripped many of those Black people of their right to vote.
Then came the backlash to the first Black president, and the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Now you have the election lie coming from a white supremacist president who was defeated in part because of the voting of people of color in key states.
As the Brennan Center for Justice pointed out last month, “The United States is on track to far exceed its most recent period of significant voter suppression — 2011.”
The restrictive laws from 2011 were enacted after the 2010 elections brought a significant shift in political control over statehouses — and as the country confronted backlash to the election of its first Black president. Today’s attacks on the vote come from similar sources: the racist voter fraud allegations behind the Big Lie and a desire to prevent future elections from achieving the historic turnout seen in 2020.
There has never been anything delicate or elegant about voter suppression. It is a club. But those doing the suppressing have learned ways to disguise their tactics, to no longer explicitly identify race in the language of legislation. Instead, they use poverty as a proxy for race. They examine culture for patterns, like Black churches’ helping members to the polls on Sundays, and they restrict the conditions that make the patterns possible.
And they add voter suppression to societal oppression. Where transportation is a hurdle for some, they reduce the number of polling places and drop boxes. Where people have problems obtaining state identification, they demand it. Where people may miss a few elections, they purge them.
One of the mechanisms used during Jim Crow to suppress the Black vote was the imposition of a poll tax. Some white voters were suppressed by this, but the greatest effect was on Black voters.
We now have a poll tax once again, only it’s paid not in currency but in inconvenience. When people have to wait hours in line to vote, that, too, is a tax. The poll tax is a skin color tax, as Black people are more likely to have to wait.
As one study appearing in Scientific American pointed out in 2019: “Voters in predominantly Black neighborhoods waited 29 percent longer, on average, than those in white neighborhoods. They were also about 74 percent more likely to wait for more than half an hour.”
I don’t see how anyone, including President Biden and his administration, can focus on anything but this right now. Biden is incredibly focused on his infrastructure bill, but who needs a new bridge when your right to vote has been abridged?
We can’t look at what is happening now with voter suppression as just one more horrible thing that the Republican Party is doing. And we can’t look at it as just a maneuver to alter presidential outcomes.
When you can’t vote, you can’t vote for anything from the president all the way down to the local school board. Voter suppression is about silencing, it is about weakening, it is about controlling though constriction.
Black people and other people of color have been pivotal in some recent elections. Republicans are determined to ensure, through disenfranchisement, that that doesn’t happen again any time soon.“