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128 years of voter suppression

One Person, No Vote

by Carol Anderson
Bloomsbury Books (2018)

“The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.” – Joltin’ Joe Stalin

Voter suppression, that is, preventing citizens from registering, preventing registered voters from voting, and preventing the accurate counting of cast ballots, is not a recent scam in the US. It has a history, and by knowing its detailed history, we can win some fights against it.

While Washington state has an inclusive and clean elections apparatus, dozens of other states choose to continue cleverly-designed election-fixing that started as far back as 1890.

The 2018 book, One Person, No Vote, by Carol Anderson, meticulously documents this history. And while the author shows that technological sophistication only makes voter suppression more effective and less traceable, she also shares tactics for rolling back much (not all) of it.

Instead of a typical chronological narrative, Anderson organizes her history around three suppression techniques still in use today: voter ID/qualification requirements, voter-roll purges and administrative rule-rigging.

A long and fraught history

Before the Civil War, no special effort was needed to limit voting to a select few. Each state could determine who was eligible to vote—and generally that excluded women, non-whites, minors and people who didn’t own real estate.

The end of the Civil War brought the 15th Amendment, providing that the right to vote could not be “denied or abridged on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” This called for new ways to limit the franchise—and led to an era of terrorist mass action designed to intimidate people out of voting.
Some people rallied around the idea that if you tortured or killed enough people who didn’t look like you, it would dissuade others from trying. It was a standby of electoral politics, especially in the states of the former Confederacy. Sporadic forays by the Federal government into enforcing voting rights law during Reconstruction eventually inspired the suppressors to develop new tactics. They would use the law and regulations instead of the noose to limit the franchise to white men.

In 1890 the “Mississippi Plan” was conceived as a more systematic way to deny rights promised under the 15th Amendment. Mississippi’s model legislation, using all three techniques Anderson points out, became the blueprint for action by other states.

In the area of Voter ID and qualification, Mississippi allowed every county to choose its own standard of “literacy” which could distinguish between voters. Some African-Americans had to read and explain part of the state’s financial regulatory code or they could not register. Whites might have to read the name on their driver’s license.

Decades later, after court cases by the NAACP and voter registration drives by young civil rights workers, those attempting to suppress the vote reverted things such as purging voter rolls, inventing new standards for re-registration in predominantly African-American counties, a new era of gerrymandering, draconian residency requirements, putting polling places in locations inconvenient for specific groups of would-be voters, and other measures.

Anderson reports how Republicans diffused and applied these techniques to more and more states, and how the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder opened up the Republican playbook to an efflorescence of creative suppression. If you’ve followed the evolution of voting requirements in Wisconsin, Georgia or North Carolina, you’ll get the fine points. The Democrats’ efforts have been limp in the face of this offensive against democracy and the rule of law.

Blessedly, Anderson also shows how, in spite of the Democrats’ fecklessness, non-party organizers have rolled out a model that can beat the scams. In a 2017 Alabama special Senate election, community organizers, mostly-African American, took a page from the Civil Rights era. Adding to the Democrats’ fragile, money-centric wholesale campaigning (advertising, robo-calling, generic get out the vote arm-waving) they pursued one-on-one outreach, worked through existing community organizations and built new ones, relentlessly went to court and peacefully fought back.

Anderson seems to see the Alabama approach as the key to overcoming America’s passion for voter suppression. Build alternative strategies that complement Democratic party funds with organizing that makes voting easy in a country where, when people actually vote, the bad guys generally lose.

I knew a lot about voter suppression techniques, but One Person, No Vote added a ton of knowledge and context, and connected the war on voting today to the thread spun by the voter suppression movement since the Civil War.

Jeff Angus is an avid reader and follower of party politics. He was at one time a US Senate staffer.

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