President Trump is right. Our electoral process is under assault.
The problem isn’t voter fraud, though Trump keeps squealing despite no evidence to back up his frantic claims. Instead, the real issue is voter suppression. It’s disenfranchising millions of voters, skewing elections, and evoking some of the worst eras in this nation’s racially fraught history.
That’s why Carol Anderson, a history professor, believes that the biggest threat to fair elections isn’t Vladimir Putin.
“The Republicans hacked our democracy long before the Russians got there,” says Anderson, author of “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.”
“What you have are the destroyers of democracy presenting their public face as the protectors of democracy, and how that lie of rampant voter fraud is embedded in federal law, as if it is a legitimate concern,” she says. “It’s not.”
Anderson will be discussing her book Thursday at Brookline Booksmith.
After the Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states rushed to implement measures designed to stifle voters of color, young people, and the poor. When I told Anderson, an African-American studies professor at Emory University in Atlanta, that hers is the most infuriating book I’ve read in recent memory, she didn’t take it as an insult. She wants readers provoked to action against what Republicans are methodically doing to our elections to hold on to political power.
Last month, a Georgia elections consultant proposed closing down seven of nine polling stations in a predominately black county. They weren’t wheelchair accessible, and the state had no money to upgrade them. Though county officials voted down the measure, the reason behind this sudden urgency before November’s election seemed obvious — Stacey Abrams, a Georgia Democrat, could become the nation’s first African-American woman governor.
“They use the language of fiscal responsibility: ‘It cost a lot to keep all of these polls open, and we just don’t have the resources.’ It sounds like the same language they used to justify a poll tax,” Anderson said. “This time they tried to use [Americans with Disability Act] to mask this thing, but they weren’t concerned about ADA compatibility for these polling stations during the primaries. The reasoning is so flawed that you can see right through it.”
Democracy doesn’t only die in darkness. In the light of day, election officials, secretaries of state, and conservative Supreme Court justices smother it.
When African-American turnout dropped 7 percent in the 2016 election, pundits called Hillary Clinton’s candidacy uninspiring, compelling many black voters to skip the election. Yet voter suppression was overlooked as a root cause for that decrease, and others among specific groups. It still is. As the nation becomes more diverse, white political brokers are panicking.
Or as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham put it in 2012, “The demographics race we’re losing badly. We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
None of this is new. Black people have been targets of voter suppression since the end of the Civil War, when white Southerners feared the political power of those they had once enslaved. Now the means are more sophisticated, but no less effective. Voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and closed polling stations that create untenable wait lines have replaced poll taxes, literacy tests, and jellybean counts.
And since this racist chicanery is cloaked in the banality of bureaucracy, few seem to notice.
“If we see somebody hanging up nooses in front of a polling station in the 21st century — we know that’s bad,” said Anderson, who wrote the award-winning book, “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.”
“What we don’t get is that someone closing seven of the nine polling stations in a county that is majority African-American is bad,” she said. “It’s done clinically, smoothly. It has a kind of innocence behind it that makes it seem palpable to the broader American public.”
If this nation’s “energy and all of its brainpower,” Anderson says, was used in service of equality for all, we’d have “a very different United States of America, one that is much stronger, more vibrant, and where the Russians could do whatever the Russians want to do and there wouldn’t be this Achilles heel” for bad foreign actors to penetrate.
Instead, with one of our most crucial elections fast approaching, the greatest danger to fair elections — the foundation of American democracy — remains America itself.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.