There’s Less Than Two Years to Save American DemocracyHistorians in the News
tags: Republican Party, democracy, Voting Rights Act, voting rights
Though it has yet to fully register as the national story it deserves to be, America is currently in the throes of what may well be the most concerted effort at voter suppression in living memory. Since the beginning of the year, Republican state legislators have introduced a deluge of new laws intended to restrict voting, suppress traditionally non-Republican constituencies, and overturn the results of elections.
Mother Jones senior reporter Ari Berman has been covering issues related to voting rights, gerrymandering, and democratic disenfranchisement for years and is author of the 2015 book Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Berman spoke to Jacobin’s Luke Savage about the concerted right-wing offensive currently underway at the state level, its deep parallels with similar efforts in the nineteenth century, and why failure to pass federal voting rights legislation will have dire consequences for American democracy.
America is currently in the midst of the most pronounced effort at voter suppression it’s seen for quite some time. According to the Brennan Center, fourteen states enacted twenty-two new laws between January 1 and the middle of last month that restrict access to the vote. From what I can tell, this is just the tip of the iceberg — there being hundreds of voting laws tabled at the state level that have a restrictive character. How would you characterize what’s going on right now?
I would characterize it as the greatest assault on voting rights since the end of Reconstruction. If you look at the number of bills introduced, the number of bills passed, and the intensity of the effort behind it, I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. Many of these kinds of efforts were blocked under the Voting Rights Act — and since the Supreme Court gutted it in 2013, voter suppression has gotten worse. But this is by far the worst it’s been in the past decade. It’s not like this is the first time there have been efforts to suppress the vote, but we are seeing a greater number of efforts at suppression, more restrictive bills than before, and more of an intensity within the Republican party to pass them.
LS: This week, you published a long essay on the deep history of voter suppression in places like Georgia — which goes all the way back to the years immediately after the Union victory in the Civil War. I think many people are at least somewhat aware of the parallels between what Southern Democrats did in the late nineteenth century and what Republicans are doing today, but they may not realize how concrete and literal those parallels actually are. Can you talk about the very direct linkages between earlier efforts at disenfranchising black voters and what’s happening right now?
There’s both a pattern that’s familiar and specific parallels. First the pattern: the familiar pattern is that you had the enfranchisement of new voters during Reconstruction. It was black voters who turned out in record numbers and were elected. Then you had efforts at violence, fraud, and intimidation to try to suppress black votes. That worked for a time, but when black voters were disenfranchised it was really through legal means like literacy tests, poll taxes, and things like that, which happened when states changed their constitutions a while after the end of Reconstruction. Reconstruction is often thought to have ended in 1877, when Rutherford B. Hayes pulled federal troops out of the South, but blacks still voted in a bunch of states in the South through that period. It wasn’t until Mississippi adopted its constitution to disenfranchise black voters in 1890 that Southern states tried to figure out a way to completely disenfranchise them through what were thought of as “legal” means.
That same kind of process is playing out today: you had the enfranchisement of new groups, manifested in higher turnout in 2020, and you had an attempt to try to overturn the election through extralegal means, including an insurrection. Then, in 2021, you have the so-called legal means to try to disenfranchise people through changes to election law. Those are the big-picture similarities.
The more specific similarities are, number one, the language: Jim Crow never actually said “we want to disenfranchise black voters.” It was technically race neutral, it’s just that everyone knew who the target was. The same thing is happening today. Georgia Republicans aren’t saying “we want to disenfranchise black voters,” but everyone knows that’s their target, because that’s the strongest constituency of the Democratic Party. Number two, even back then you had Southern white Democrats in Mississippi — because remember that Democrats were the segregationist party back then and Republicans were the party of civil rights, and that’s flipped — who were arguing that they were expanding voting rights. They either argued they were expanding voting rights or they argued they were protecting the sanctity or purity of the ballot. That same language is being used by Republicans today.
The last thing is that in the nineteenth century they also made it easier to overturn elections by taking away power from bipartisan election officials, and either gave it to partisan election officials or took power from voters to appoint their election officials. That kind of pattern is playing out in states like Georgia and Texas today. So there are big picture parallels, but also a lot of specific similarities in terms of the nature of the laws themselves.
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