The Racist Reality of Voter Suppression (ep. 35)

February 28, 2019
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As Black History Month comes to an end, Professor Carol Anderson (Emory University) joins At Liberty to discuss ongoing voter suppression efforts in the United States, and as a bonus, she tells the story of how the NAACP helped lead the global struggle against colonialism in the 1940s and 1950s. 

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[0:04] From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I'm Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney here at the ACLU and your host. As Black History Month comes to an end, we've invited Professor Carol Anderson to discuss ongoing voter suppression efforts in the United States. We'll also discuss an untold story in Black history about how the civil rights movement in the U.S. supported anti-colonial and human rights activists around the globe. Dr. Anderson is a professor of African-American studies at Emory University and chairs the African-American Studies Department. She's also a rare historian who can speak clearly and compellingly to the current moment. Professor Anderson, it's a pleasure to have you with us. Welcome to the podcast.

Oh, thank you so much for having me.

I wanted to start with some of your early scholarship which relates to the role of the NAACP and other organizations in anti-colonial movements. Can you tell us a little bit about that underreported story?

Oh, absolutely. And you know you just made me smile by going back to the older stuff so thank you for that. The NAACP has a reputation as being this kind of stodgy state organization that only dealt with legal issues, as if legal issues weren't important issues. But as I’m going through their papers I found this incredible vision and activism that they had on the global stage. One was the activism for human rights, where the NAACP conceptualized -- and this is in the 1940s -- conceptualized the struggle for Black equality as a human rights struggle, not a civil rights struggle.

And that meant that it encompassed not only what we understand as the constitutional Bill of Rights -- the right to free speech, the right not to be illegally searched and seized, the right to a fair trial -- but also the right to education, the right to housing, the right to a living wage, the right to healthcare.

[2:08] And they took that battle all the way to the U.N. and helped craft language in the U.N. Charter guaranteeing human rights and against discrimination based on race and sex and religion, etc.

On the colonial front, the NAACP wasn't always necessarily the group out there in the streets. But they worked to reshape the norms of colonialism

They took on some heavy, heavy issues such as apartheid in South Africa. It was the work of the NAACP that in fact helped lead to the the U.N.’s commission looking at apartheid, which was amazing because here you have the U.N. saying what you are doing internally so violates the basic human rights and it violates the peace, that we have the right to look at what you're doing internally. We have the right to basically breach your national sovereignty. What you're doing threatens to destabilize the world.

And that was the handiwork of those in the NAACP. I see this again with their work in what was called the Italian colonies issues, as well as with the work with Indonesia as Indonesia is trying to get free from the Dutch.

So I mean, when you're thinking about these liberation struggles, these freedom struggles, the NAACP was all there and all in.

Well it's a really fascinating piece of history that not many people are aware of. It brings up a few themes that I find interesting.

One is this relationship between the NAACP, which is deeply rooted in the specificity of the Black experience in the United States, and building these linkages with other global activists. I'm wondering how the sort of interplay between race as a highly contextual and specific experience in each society translates onto the global perspective, where you have activists of different backgrounds coming from very different societies trying to come together around shared ideals. Is this a case of folks just finding ideological alliances across borders, or was it around some shared identity?

[4:24] It was around a shared sense of oppression. Walter White at the time, who was the head of the NAACP, said basically that it would be foolish to think about that what we're dealing with here is only an American issue. Jim Crow is only an American issue. White supremacy is only an American issue. He said, you know, it's like only dealing with what's happening to the Negroes in Mississippi and missing what is happening to them in Massachusetts. And it's the same thing. They understood that white supremacy as an organizing principle was a global phenomenon. And so that phenomenon was the one that propped up Jim Crow, was also the one that propped up colonialism.

And so if you took it down in the United States but left it standing everywhere else, you hadn't done the work, because the work for freedom was a global struggle. What the NAACP also recognized -- in 1945 it held a colonial conference before the war’s end, World War II ended.

And that was to have representatives from Africa and Asia meeting to map out their vision of what a post-war world looked like, because the European powers and the US were mapping out their vision of what that would look like, but they had excluded most of the people on earth. And so as they're thinking about what this looks like, they were building it on a human rights frame: indigenous control of natural resources. That there would be labor standards and labor rights. That there would be universal education. This is the plan that they're mapping out about what freedom would look like.

[6:10] The NAACP also understood that it could not take the lead, for instance, in what was happening in Somalia or what was happening in Indonesia, but that it had a role to play and that it was willing to play that role. Here in the U.S., in its work with the State Department, its work with the U.N., its work with the White House, in order to begin to shatter those norms that colonialism was acceptable.

I'm interested to get the update on this story. Where do you see any continuation of this legacy of collaboration between civil rights activists in the U.S. and activists more globally? Is that still an ongoing dialogue?

Oh I see it. It’s like, when you think about the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter has been working through, for instance, the indigenous people’s rights, has been working through what is happening on the West Bank. They have been thinking through and advocating for those who are fighting for their freedom.

Well thank you very much for sharing that fascinating story about the NAACP and the civil rights movement.

If we can just shift to what's going on now in terms of voter suppression and specifically the things you cover in your recent book, One Person, No Vote. What do you think are the biggest problems now in terms of voter suppression?

Oh yes. I think the major change was the U.S. Supreme Court's Shelby County v. Holder decision which gutted Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act set the standard about what states had to do in order to be put under the Department of Justice's preclearance provision.

[8:00] And preclearance meant that before this jurisdiction could implement a voting law, it had to be okayed by the U.S. Department of Justice or by the federal court in D.C. And in order to get there, there were these standards that the state had to meet. So it basically was that you discriminated actively against your minority populations to stop them from voting, that you were violating the 15th Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts gutted Section 4. And so that basically ended preclearance. And it threw the United States back to the era where everything had to be litigated, so that the states were able then to just go hog wild implementing voter suppression laws that then the ACLU and the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund and the League of Women Voters were all having to go to court and take these states back to court over and over and over.

And so what do I mean? Like voter I.D. laws. Voter I.D. laws on the surface sound reasonable, that you want to make sure that the person who is voting is actually that person. But it has been couched in terms of stopping voter fraud.

That kind of in-person voting voter fraud is so rare that there are like a bajillion zeros in front of the percentage in terms of how often that happens. Justin Levitt, a law professor out of California, he looked from 2000 to 2014 and found 31 cases of voter fraud out of 1 billion votes. That's the so-called rampant, massive voter fraud -- about two cases per year -- that is used as the justification for voter I.D.

[10:06] States like North Carolina went through and got data in terms of who had what kind of I.D. And they got that data by race, and then they made the kinds of I.D.s that African-Americans held the least in order to vote. Or you look like, at a state like Alabama. What Alabama did was to say you've got to have government issued photo I.D. in order to vote.

So what's been the impact that we've seen on turnout among Black voters?

Oh, it has been disastrous. For instance, in Wisconsin they implemented a voter I.D. law there, Scott Walker. This is a Republican initiative where you have a Republican governor and a legislature that is controlled by the Republicans.

And the impact was that in the 2016 election there were 60 thousand fewer votes from the 2012 election. Sixty-eight percent of that drop off came out of Milwaukee alone, where 70 percent of the Black population in the state lives. Political scientists out of the University of Wisconsin ran the numbers, and they found that eight percent of whites were blocked from voting because of the I.D. laws and 27 percent of African-Americans were blocked from voting because of the I.D. laws.

When you think that Trump won -- and I put that in quotation marks -- Wisconsin by a little over 20 thousand votes, we see the impact that these voter I.D. laws have. What Scott Walker did is he began saying you've got to have an I.D. to vote, government issued photo I.D.

[12:04] Then he began to mess with the placement and the hours, the location of the Department of Motor Vehicles in the city of Milwaukee. So you create the obstacle to the ballot box -- you must have an I.D. -- and then you create an obstacle to the obstacle by making it very difficult for people to be able to get that I.D. by shutting down these kind of state-controlled facilities and making them less accessible to the population.

Well these voter I.D. laws, as you say, seem reasonable on their face but the disparate impact is quite dramatic. I had not heard the story of the sort of spreadsheet being sorted by race and picking the one from the top. But it's quite a dramatic picture of how these voter I.D. laws are used to target certain types of voters. And voter roll purges I think have also sort of been designed, even though they seem like a straightforward way of keeping the voter rolls up to date, the disparate impact has been dramatic there as well.

Oh, absolutely. And you know, I'm in Georgia where Brian Kemp was the Secretary of State starting in 2010 until 2019 when he assumed the governorship. In the first few years of his watch, 1.4 million people were purged off of the voter rolls. So these are registered voters who are purged.

Now the line becomes -- again, it sounds reasonable -- we have to maintain the voter rolls. When people move or when they die, they shouldn't be on the voter roll and when they moved out of the district, out of the precinct, out of the state. That sounds reasonable, but that's not how their algorithm works for whom to purge. They decide -- “they” being these really aggressive secretaries of state like John Husted out of Ohio, Brian Kemp out of Georgia -- is to go after those who don't vote regularly in every election.

[14:05] And what that does is -- it's just like the Mississippi Plan of 1890 which was the rise of Jim Crow and the rise of this massive disfranchisement, with like literacy tests and poll taxes -- is that you don't say, “We don't want Black people to vote,” because that would just be too blatant and violate the 15th Amendment. So you use the characteristics of a people, the societally imposed characteristics. We know that minorities don't vote in every election. We know that the poor do not vote in every election.

And so to remove from the rolls those who don't vote regularly, what you're basically saying is that we're removing young people and we're removing minorities from the voting rolls. And that's what they've done. In the last two years between 2016 and 2018, Brian Kemp removed 10.6 percent of registered voters from the rolls in Georgia, and disproportionately they were minorities.

And of course, the conclusion of that story is that Brian Kemp himself, who had been the Secretary of State, then won his election as governor.

Yes. So, I liken it to you're the director of the lottery and you certify that all of the equipment and all of the balls really are functioning the way they're supposed to. And then you just, oh, happened to pull the winning lottery ticket. That's what happened here. We had so much chicanery happening in this election here in Georgia. So for one thing, there's a thing called Exact Match.

Previously, the courts had ruled that the Exact Match program was racially discriminatory. The way that Exact Match works is that when you fill out your registration card, then the Secretary of State's office compares it to the information that's in the state's database -- the driver's license database or the Social Security Office database.

[16:09] If the information does not match exactly, your registration is put into pending status. By not matching exactly things like an accent -- so if your name is Renee and you write it with an accent over that second “E,” but on your driver's license there's no accent there, then boom, it's put into pending status.

If your name is Carlos Marquez-Garcia and you write it with a hyphen between Marquez and Garcia, but there's no hyphen in the driver's license, boom.

What happened then, with Exact Match, is that it privileges anglicized names. So when the court said this is racially discriminatory, then the Georgia legislature, which is heavily gerrymandered, passed a law for Exact Match that basically replicates the racial discrimination in the policy that the court said was absolutely racially discriminatory. And in this last election in October, it was clear then that 53,000 voter registrations were put on hold, put into pending status.They weren't put on the books.

Just in Georgia alone.

Just in Georgia alone, 53,000 using Exact Match. Turned out that over 80 percent of those were minorities.


We also had over 200 polling places closed and most of those in minority communities. And not having enough machines. He basically held off on buying new machines, although he sat on over 10 million dollars worth of federal funds for new voting equipment. So we ended up with like four plus hou lines in communities in Atlanta because of lack of working proper voting machines.

[18:07] Well we know the impact that these types of measures had in Georgia and particularly in the Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp race.

But I wonder if you can maybe take a step back and evaluate the 2018 elections overall in terms of voter suppression. What do you think are the lessons that we can learn from this midterm?

What we saw was this massive incredible ground game from civil society, from the ACLU, from the LDS, from the League of Women Voters, from Vote Riders, from Black PAC, from Let America Vote, doing the heavy lifting of democracy by going out and registering people to vote, by explaining voting laws, by taking these jurisdictions to court when they were implementing or trying to implement racially discriminatory voting laws and by setting up pools that can drive people to and from the polls to make up for the loss of polling stations in their communities.

And so, we had a voter turnout rate that was the highest it had been since the 1920s.And we can never ignore the desire of the people to have a say in the policies that govern their lives. It flipped the house.

Well it seems like there's a clear sort of tension where we have some dramatic expansion in voting access in some states including in Florida, while also these rampant voter suppression efforts in other states. How do you reconcile these two dynamics? Where do you see this going in the future?

[19:55] You know, one of the things that I talk about at the end of One Person No Vote -- and actually I'm writing the midterm epilogue as we speak -- is that you're seeing a nation that is basically being ripped asunder from these two very different visions of democracy. On the one hand you have states that are working overtime to figure out how do we expand access to the ballot box for our citizens? And so you've got automatic voter registration. That started in Oregon and has begun to really gain traction in many states across the nation. You've got same day registration.

You saw numerous states like Michigan that has been heavily gerrymandered and where you've got a political leadership that is not aligned with the people and the people's desires. And so the people then put initiatives on the ballot in November dealing with opening up access to the ballot box.

The testament to that is that you then had these lame duck sessions of Republicans, who were going to lose their super majorities in the legislatures, using that lame duck session to then annul or weaken the ballot initiatives voted on by the people.


So I think it was in Michigan, for instance, they voted for same day registration.

And the legislature then said mm-mm, and pushed it back to something like two weeks before or a month before, something like that. So same day registration, which is to help ease access to the ballot box then becomes one where you've got to have it done weeks in advance in order to be able to vote.

Which defeats the whole purpose.

You're getting the legislature short circuiting the will of the people.

[22:01] Well we've got this really dramatic situation where one party is very firmly in favor of expanding access to the vote, while the other party is trying to limit it at every turn. But one issue that has not been historically partisan is one of gerrymandering. And so I wonder if you can just talk a bit about the racial dynamics of gerrymandering, but also how it, at its core, is also political and it's a much harder problem to solve.

The Constitution says that after the census, that then the legislative body is to redraw the districts to take into account population shifts. And those population shifts can mean that if you've got more people coming into your state you get additional representatives in the U.S. Congress. If you've lost populations, you get fewer.

Well what these legislative bodies have done, and I'm going to take Wisconsin on this one because Wisconsin is quintessential in this. What Wisconsin did after the 2010 census is that a handful of Republicans went into a hotel room and basically, for all intents and purposes, locked themselves in there for four months with high powered mapping software.

Their goal was to, as they said, ensure that no matter how many votes Republicans received, they would always control the state legislature. So think about that as a democratic principle: Even if we receive fewer, we will always have more. And that was the goal.

They also wanted to eliminate as many competitive districts as possible, because when the districts are competitive, it heightens voter turnout, because people believe that their vote counts. But if you get rid of competitive districts, it just feels like the system is rigged and your vote doesn't count and you stay home. We know this from the research.

[24:11] The first election out, Democrats received 52 percent of the vote, but gained only 38 percent of the seats in the legislature. And what that is designed to do is to weaken the influence and the representation of these large urban areas, the cities, and that means because many African-Americans and Latinos live in the cities -- not all of them, of course -- but it is to weaken their political voice.

And their political and policy needs and concerns while heightening those who live in the rural areas, who tend to be overwhelmingly white and Republican.

And courts have stepped in to strike down gerrymandering plans where it's clear that there was some element of racial bias or animus, either explicitly or implicitly, as part of the plan. But what the court has not yet been willing to say is that there can be limits on explicitly partisan gerrymandering; that is, based on giving your party, as you said in Wisconsin, permanent political power.

There's a few different ways that people have tried to think about solving this issue and some of them involve sort of complex algorithms that show which plans place the most value on each individual vote. Do you think that there's a sort of mathematic or algorithmic answer that can save our democracy in this regard?

Actually there was, and it was one of the last cases that Justice Anthony Kennedy saw... And it was tailor-made for him. And it was the case Gill v. Whitford coming out of Wisconsin, this very issue of extreme partisan gerrymandering.

[26:11] Legal scholars and political scientists had developed an algorithm to talk about basically wasted votes. This algorithm allowed them to be able to make the distinction between places like Wisconsin and North Carolina that are heavily, heavily gerrymandered and places where it isn't.

And the Supreme Court sidestepped that basically on a technicality and did not rule. But the algorithm is out there.

But what gerrymandering does, and this is where we also have to be clear is that -- you know, when you think about what the polls say, for instance, banning bump stocks and semiautomatic weapons, about access to affordable health care, about the tax bill, the polls went in one direction and the U.S. Congress at the time went in another.

Well the sort of impact on representative democracy that is presented by this extreme partisan gerrymandering sort of hangs in the balance as we wait for the Supreme Court to weigh in.

What are the other issues that you see as pending or, or most active between now and the 2020 election? What should we be on the lookout for, either more of the same or is innovation pushing in any particular way when it comes to vote suppression?

One of the things that we're watching here in Georgia is the decision about what kind of voting machines to use. The current ones run on Windows 2000 and are easily hackable.

[27:58] And there were a couple of lawsuits from 2016 and 2017 saying that in fact the machines were hacked, and then the servers were mysteriously wiped, so making it very difficult to do that kind of forensic analysis. And our machines here in Georgia don't have a paper trail, so all you've got are the electronics.

And the decision right now that the state is making does not appear to be the one that is most viable and most cost effective, which deals with hand-marked paper ballots. Instead, it appears that they're trying to go to another type of machine that will render a lot of the same problems. And if you begin to think about how the Trump administration is disbanding the Department of Homeland Security's divisions or the coalitions that are dealing with hacking, foreign interference and hacking of voting machines, of our elections. It, mmm, it smells. It's not passing the smell test. That's something to be concerned about.

Also to be concerned about was the U.S. Supreme Court decision that said that it was okay to purge voters who did not vote regularly. So that is giving a green light to these really aggressive Republican secretaries of state, who are dealing with what I call a demographic apocalypse, in that the Republican Party -- their response has not been to reform and to figure out how to broaden their policies, but in fact to shut down the members of the electorate that they believe will not vote for them.

[29:55] One of the things, for instance, that we just saw happening in Texas was that the Secretary of State issued this big press release about how 95 thousand non-citizens were on the voter rolls and 58 thousand of them have voted in a previous election. But it’s a lie. They knew, they used a flawed database. They didn't take into account that from the time that they got the information from the Department of Public Services about who got a driver's license and who was not yet a citizen and the time that people got their citizenship -- lots can happen in six years.

We've got to be mindful of the incredible lies that are coming out there about massive, rampant voter fraud and the kinds of policies that they want to bring in the wake of those lies by generating a fear of the other stealing our elections.

Well these narratives about voter fraud and stealing of elections are obviously a central part of the public debate right now.

But what I noted about the two things that you said we should look out for -- namely, voting machines and maintenance of voter rolls -- are the types of things that traditionally a secretary of state or a board of elections would do sort of as an administrative clerical duty. These are not necessarily public functions, choosing new voting machines and figuring out whose name is outdated on the voter rolls.

So I think the work is clear in terms of making sure we not only keep an eye out for blatant lies and actions around election time, but these administrative tasks in terms of making machine purchases and and maintaining voter rolls is really where a lot of the real work is done.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Well, I wanted to close with the question, maybe stepping back a bit since it is the close of Black History Month.

How do you think history will remember this sort of post-Obama period in America? And maybe to complicate it a bit, do you think that will be different if there is another African-American president next?

[32:07] In my book White Rage, which came out before the 2016 election, I signaled the rise of Donald Trump as the white rage response to Barack Obama. What Trump brought to the table was not real policy innovation. What he brought was pure, uncut white supremacy.

He preyed on the fears, and when you think about it, whites were the only racial or ethnic group in America who voted in the majority for Donald Trump. If an African-American is elected after him, that will not alter this narrative of white rage.

We need to understand the way that white supremacy and racism have shaped our discourse, shaped our policies, shaped our perceptions, to the point where it has put in power a man who is so thoroughly compromised on so many levels and so unqualified on so many levels. But he offered what no one else could. And remember he started, he launched his political career with birtherism, so history will remember that.

But what also history will take into account, I hope, is the recognition that he did not win the majority of votes, and that his popularity has never risen really above his base. And that there has been strong, consistent, and persistent resistance to his vision of America that is very Jim Crow, very whites-only.

[34:02] And not just whites only, but almost plantation-like, white elites only. And that where the trickle down happens supposedly are for poor whites, but they can't feel it because their water is being polluted, their air is being polluted as the regulations from EPA are being stripped away.

We're in a turbulent time right now. We're in a moment where we are fighting basically not only internally, but that kind of global move, that global anti-democracy move that is out there. But I think we have the strength and the will and the vision to restore or resurrect an America that is much more inclusive, much more healthy, and much more vibrant and much more committed to true democracy.

Professor Anderson, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today.

Oh, thank you so much.

Thanks very much for listening. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast us and tweet @ACLU with feedback. We appreciate your input and will be sure to read every message. Till next week. Peace.

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