Why The Democratic Right To Vote Is An American Myth

The Supreme Court allowed a highly contested and racist redrawing of an Alabama map that would aid Republicans looking to regain control of Congress.
People for the American Way President Ben Jealous (third from left) and Black Voters Matter Executive Director Cliff Albright (fifth from left) join a voting rights protest Nov. 17 in front of the White House.
People for the American Way President Ben Jealous (third from left) and Black Voters Matter Executive Director Cliff Albright (fifth from left) join a voting rights protest Nov. 17 in front of the White House.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

America is trying to make Black people quit.

If you have to ask what aspect of “America” is doing this, it’s the racist part — the kind that shouts and the kind that whispers. And if you have to ask “quit what,” that’s a good question. Because one could argue America has been trying to get Black people to “quit” all sorts of things — from learning their history to existing. But for today’s latest in “America is trying to make Black people quit,” we’re talking about voting.

On Monday, the Supreme Court restored the highly contested and racist redrawing of an Alabama map that would serve Republicans looking to regain control of Congress in the Nov. 8 midterm elections. The high court’s decision halts a lower court finding that the new map would likely discriminate against Black voters.

“A panel of three federal judges on Jan. 24 ruled that the map unlawfully deprived Black voters of an additional House district in which they could be a majority or close to it, likely violating the Voting Rights Act, a landmark 1965 federal law that prohibited racial discrimination in voting,” Reuters reported.

This is gerrymandering at its finest. About every 10 years, whichever party is in power often gets to redraw district lines to help ensure victory or hurt those running against them. It’s completely legal and has been since 1842. It’s basically a legitimate way for politicians to move the goalposts whenever they see fit, unless, of course, it’s racist. The Supreme Court found in 1995 that racial gerrymandering is against the law. Still, the law didn’t consider that the Supreme Court would have a problem determining whether or not the newly drawn map is, in fact, racist. And that is the beauty and the subtlety of racism: Even when it’s obvious, it can still be hard to prove.

So let’s say, hypothetically, you are a Republican in a state like Alabama. You know that Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville and Montgomery have the highest populations of Black people. You can redraw the map so that all four cities are in the same district and therefore cancel out the Black vote. You know that you will lose this new powerhouse Black district, but you can gain everywhere else. There is even a term for it — it’s called “packing.”

Because “America” doesn’t want Black people to vote. And it never has. In 1870, the 15th Amendment gave voting rights to all men. This included Black men, but they couldn’t actually vote because of all kinds of bureaucratic red tape, like poll taxes and literacy tests. And for those who could scrape together enough money to pay a poll tax and learn to read under the unforgiving flicker of candlelight, there were armed white men at the polling stations to scare those with the courage to try to vote. Today, America uses limits on who can vote by mail and increased criminal penalties for those who misunderstand election laws. For the past 20 years, America has worked tirelessly to keep people of color from the voting booth. According to the Brennan Center at New York University, this country has used all kinds of evil tactics, including “imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, and purging voter rolls.”

“In 2016, pummeled by voter suppression in more than 30 states, the black voter turnout plummeted by seven percentage points,” Carol Anderson, author of “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy,” told The Guardian. “For the GOP, that was an effective kill rate. For America, it was a lethal assault on democracy.”

And states continue to adjust the voting laws every year based on Black voter turnout. In 2020 — during the pandemic, I might add — Black voters showed up in record numbers. Because there were several questions about “voting integrity” (blame Donald Trump and his Custer’s Last Stand of election lies), many Black people didn’t believe in the security of mail-in voting and wanted to cast their vote in person. Voting rights groups organized transportation to get voters to the polls, and someone — guess who — didn’t like that. Michigan lawmakers made the practice of giving rides to voters to the polls illegal for anyone who can walk.

America likes to pride itself as a democracy; it isn’t. For Black people, it’s an authoritarian state that continues to suppress the Black vote and unjustly punish those who don’t understand all of the confusing laws before them.

America has the lowest voter turnout rate among any of the developed countries, and that’s not by accident. America wants it this way. Lower turnout almost always affects Democrats. So no matter how ridiculous the laws are in your state, learn them. Find out if your state offers automatic voter registration (19 states plus the District of Columbia do) and do that. Find out exactly what is needed to vote in person so you don’t have to go home and return later to vote. Have a plan on voting day so that you know when and where you can vote. Arrive early and bring your own water. If you are Black and have been convicted of a felony and are working to get your voting rights back, make sure everything is in place before you register because America is unkind to Black people who make mistakes.

Take Pamela Moses, a Black Memphis activist who was convicted in November 2021 for registering to vote as a person who’d had a felony conviction. The whole thing was a misunderstanding. A judge initially told Moses that she wouldn’t be able to vote because she was still on probation. Believing that the judge was wrong, Moses contacted her parole officer and explained her position. The officer agreed with her and even signed documentation stating that Moses was no longer on probation. Moses believed that this allowed her the right to vote, and considering that the court never notified voting officials to remove Moses’ name from their list of registered voters, she believed she was fine. But, get this, Moses didn’t get to actually vote; she merely registered to vote.

“I did not falsify anything. All I did was try to get my rights to vote back the way the people at the election commission told me and the way the clerk did,” she said during her Jan. 26 sentencing, WREG-TV Memphis reported.

The judge didn’t believe her. To the judge, Moses was trying to game the system, and for that he sentenced her to six years in prison.

Six years in prison for merely attempting to vote. Think about that number six — six years, the same amount of time someone could get for involuntary manslaughter in most states — and add your age to it, and then try to tell anyone how this makes sense. Tell them how purposefully eliminating voting polls in Black neighborhoods, knowing it will increase waiting times while also effectively banning the handing out of water, is not draconian. Tell them how gerrymandering — a fail-safe mechanism to ensure that the ruling class can merely recalibrate its way to more power — to cancel the Black vote isn’t putting a thumb on the scale. Tell them how America is a democracy for some and a failed state for everyone else. Tell them how if you can legislate away the Black vote, why would anyone think it would just stop there? Why not make it harder for everyone? Why not make it impossible? Why even vote at all?

And that’s what is meant by American trying to make Black people quit. Perhaps our nation’s democratic legacy is more mythology than reality, considering even the law doesn’t seem to uphold it.

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