The repeated efforts to stop African-Americans from voting in this year’s midterm elections feels horribly familiar, especially to anyone who lived through the 1950s. But this isn’t the era of Jim Crow. Instead, we’re watching the predictable consequences of the Supreme Court’s move to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act in 2013. It was a decision as irresponsible as Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal.” And now, we’re living in Jim Crow 2.0.
The GOP is making “frantic” efforts to disfranchise the voters who are most likely to pick Democrats. Perhaps the most egregious example is happening in my home state of Georgia, where Secretary of State Brian Kemp ― who is also the Republican candidate for governor ― is proving why the Voting Rights Act is absolutely necessary.
First, there was the attempt by one of his allies to close seven of the nine polling stations in a predominately African-American county. After that scheme came to light, Kemp astutely repudiated the closures, but he had already shut down 214 polling precincts, primarily in minority and poor neighborhoods. And now, it’s come to light that his office has refused to process 53,000 voter registration cards because of a program called “exact match” that, by design, disproportionately targets would-be registrants who are African-American, Asian and Hispanic.
“We’re watching the predictable consequences of the Supreme Court’s move to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act in 2013.”
These actions aren’t haphazard, one-offs or innocuous. Kemp, who is in a close gubernatorial race against Stacey Abrams, an African-American, is following an old formula that has been designed and refined over the course of more than a century to shrink and whiten the electorate, especially in states with sizable black populations.
This lethal concoction has three essential elements. The first component developed during the rise of Jim Crow in the 1890s. The second arose in the wake of the civil rights movement. And the third was added to the mix during the resurgence of the Republican Party’s right wing in the Reagan era.
The first element in this toxic formula requires circumventing the law at nearly every turn while finding a way to appear to adhere to the 15th Amendment, which asserts that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged ... on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Beginning in 1890, with the advent of Jim Crow, Mississippi led the way for other Southern states, demonstrating how to maneuver effectively around the U.S. Constitution and devastate American democracy.
The state’s legislature eschewed outright calls for banning black people from the voting booth. Instead, Mississippi opted to undermine the 15th Amendment by using literacy tests and poll taxes, which weaponized underfunded black schools and the poverty caused by centuries of slavery.
The Mississippi Plan, as it was known, spread throughout the South and was cleverly marketed as a way to end corruption at the voting booth. The literacy test, for example, was supposed to ensure that those casting a ballot understood the laws of society by simply having them read and interpret a section of the Constitution. The poll tax was also billed as a way to ascertain a level of “fitness” for citizenship by making sure that those who wanted to participate in democracy were willing to invest in it by paying a fee to vote. These measures sounded so reasonable ― despite imposed illiteracy and poverty in the black community ― that the poll tax and literacy test passed Supreme Court muster, even while they were systematically undermining democracy.
“Kemp is following an old formula that has been designed and refined over the course of more than a century to shrink and whiten the electorate.”
The implementation of the Mississippi Plan caused a precipitous drop in voter registration. By 1940, only 3 percent of voting-age African-Americans were registered to vote in the South. In Alabama in 1960, there were a mere five black registered voters out of 15,657 age-eligible African-American adults in three counties ― and that’s not including the battleground of Selma in Dallas County. In Georgia in 1962, less than 10 percent of African-Americans of voting age were registered to vote in 30 counties with sizable black populations.
In the wake of the civil rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (both signed by a Democrat, President Lyndon Johnson), conservative Republicans saw a political opportunity and seized it. The GOP maneuvered to woo away a number of whites, especially disaffected Southern Democrats, who could not endure belonging to a party that was committed to civil rights and full African-American citizenship.
This was the so-called Southern Strategy, the second key ingredient in the updated disfranchising formula. Developed by Richard Nixon’s strategist Kevin Phillips, but articulated with brutal clarity by Lee Atwater, who helped guide Ronald Reagan’s campaign, it was simple. In the wake of the civil rights movement, outright racism was no longer politically palatable, but covert racism could still shape public policy. Atwater later explained: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you, backfires. So, you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff ... and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
In other words, the power of the civil rights movement had not removed racism from the American way of doing business, it just required an even better disguise. This meant that to hide their racist intent, policymakers had to ensure that white citizens were obvious collateral damage.
That imperative persists to this day. Whites in Georgia, therefore, are also blocked from registering to vote and are clearly affected by poll closures. But, true to Atwater’s formulation, blacks are disproportionately mowed down by polling place closures and “exact match.” For example, in a state that is just under 40 percent nonwhite, three-fourths of the polls that Kemp has closed are in counties that have sizable nonwhite populations.
The same disparate impact is apparent with the 53,000 registrations being held up by exact match, which suspends a registrant’s application in electoral limbo if there is any discrepancy between the voter registration card and information gleaned from the Department of Driver Services (DDS) or the Social Security office. For example, if the registration card reads Carol E. as opposed to the DDS database’s Carole, or Garcia-Marquez versus Garcia Marquez, or Renée instead of Renee, electoral purgatory is in the applicant’s future. As a lawsuit filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and other organizations notes: “Approximately 80.15% of those pending applications were submitted by African-American, Latino and Asian-American applicants. Only 9.83% of the ‘pending’ for failure to verify applications were submitted by applicants identifying as White.”
“Approximately 80.15% of those pending applications were submitted by African-American, Latino and Asian-American applicants.”
Kemp has clearly implemented the Atwater-Southern Strategy standard with near perfection: black people got hurt far worse than whites did.
The third feature of Jim Crow 2.0, depressing voter turnout, is key. It’s been best described by Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of right-wing groups the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, who in 1980 explained that he didn’t believe in “good government” where everyone could vote. In an open display of his Machiavellian principles, he laid out for a group of conservatives that “I don’t want everybody to vote. … As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” In short, Republican power requires significantly reducing the number of voters.
From 2012 to 2016, Georgia purged more than 1.5 million people from the rolls under Kemp’s supervision. Even worse, from 2016 to 2018, the Brennan Center reports, it has wiped away an additional 10.6 percent of voters ― with nonwhites once again overrepresented in that group. And, just like the poll tax and literacy tests, none of this has been struck down as violating the 15th Amendment. A recent Supreme Court decision approved the same kind of purges in Ohio that Kemp has implemented in Georgia.
This century-old formula is lethal. It delegitimizes the 15th Amendment while seeming to uphold it, disfranchises whites in order to prevent even more African-Americans from voting, and works assiduously to suppress overall voter turnout by devising mechanisms that also undercut voting by Native Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans. It is a tried-and-tested formula designed to erode and corrode American democracy. Nov. 6 will let us know if it worked. Again.
Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler professor of African American Studies at Emory University and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide and One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying our Democracy.