With partisan redistricting and voter suppression laws, Republicans are rigging the system to avoid losing power.
By David Masciotra
The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 demonstrated exactly how little the United States has progressed since the civil rights era. The right, still battling against the foundation and promise of a multiracial democracy, has demonstrated its willingness to use violent means to preserve political control. But, beyond the desire of some to literally murder their opponents, Republican leaders are also launching a less obvious and more mechanical attack on the idea of a fairly elected government.
Patricia Sullivan, a historian at the University of South Carolina and author of the stirring and important new book, Justice Rising: Robert Kennedy’s America in Black and White, told The Progressive that, due to partisan redistricting and a slew of voter suppression laws, we are living through a period of widespread Black disenfranchisement. The Supreme Court decision to undermine the federal oversight provisions of the Voting Rights Act in a 2013 case, Shelby County v. Holder, created an opening for rightwing, anti-democratic forces to, in her words, “limit access to the ballot” and “dilute the impact of Democratic leaning voters, with a focus on Black voters.”
This is especially true in the Carolinas, Sullivan says: “In addition to requiring a government-issued ID, South Carolina has several provisions in place to limit voting access. Residents must register thirty days before an election (the longest period allowed by federal law) access to absentee ballots is restricted (after a yearlong exception due to the pandemic) and require a witness signature; and residents convicted of a felony lose their voting rights while serving time in prison, or on probation or parole.”
Black Americans, she adds, account for 64 percent of citizens disenfranchised by this last requirement.
Sullivan says that many local activists and organizations are fighting against the disenfranchisement of Black voters, college students, disabled Americans, and other Democratic constituencies. One group committed to the preservation of the integrity of electoral politics is Democracy North Carolina. When I spoke with the organization’s communications manager, Joselle Torres, she warned that an “array of extreme anti-voter attacks” threaten to “roll back decades of voter freedoms.”
Legislators in North Carolina are currently considering several bills that would limit the vote.
Senate Bill 326, in Torres’s words, will “remove a safeguard that protects absentee voters from mail delays.” Current law allows for the tallying of absentee ballots received up to three days after the election, as long as they are postmarked on or before Election Day. Republicans in North Carolina are seeking to revoke that protection, which would inevitably create the potential for thousands of nullified votes.
Another proposal, Senate Bill 725, would block county election boards from accepting grant money from nonprofit organizations to assist with everything from compensating poll workers to mailing registration information to county residents.
Torres says an additional proposed law, House Bill 259, would “essentially mandate a voter purge program by targeting voters suspected of being non-citizens based on unreliable jury excusal lists.” It would also publicize those lists, “potentially exposing North Carolina’s immigrant community to harassment and violence from rightwing vigilantes.”
Republicans have already succeeded at the national level by adopting similar tactics in several other states. In 2002, Florida state and county governments settled a lawsuit with the NAACP over the 2000 election, acknowledging that they wrongfully eliminated thousands of Black voters from the polls, using unreliable databases similar to the purge North Carolina is now proposing. Amid much controversy and after U.S. Supreme Court intervention, George W. Bush won the state of Florida—and the presidency—by only 537 votes.
In 2016, North Carolina state Republican officials were shameless enough to boast of lowering Black turnout in the presidential election by 8.5 percent. Before the same election, North Carolina also closed twenty-seven polling places—most of them in Black and Latinx neighborhoods and on college campuses. Hillary Clinton lost the state by fewer than 200,000 votes.
As if brutal tactics of voter suppression were not sufficiently autocratic, North Carolina—along with states such as Georgia and Texas—is also redistricting its electoral maps to weaken the power of the Black electorate. North Carolina’s 2020 house district map already favored Republicans, giving them eight out of thirteen seats with only 49.4 percent of statewide votes.
The redrawn 2022 map, by practicing what voting rights advocates refer to as “stacking and packing,” is likely to reduce Democratic seats to four, while the Democrats’ share of statewide votes has continued to grow.
Voter suppression, redistricting, and interference with election boards bear strong resemblance to the Jim Crow era, but there is an intensified danger as neo-confederates have exported their trickery and thievery into the North.
In Wisconsin, the same state where Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted after killing two Black Lives Matter protesters, Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 by 23,000 votes. A University of Wisconsin study found that in the same year, voter ID requirements and other suppression tactics kept between 12,000 and 23,000 voters, mostly Black, out of the voting booth in the cities of Madison and Milwaukee. Other studies conclude that the restrictive effects were similar on college students and voters of color throughout the rest of the state.
On November 30, the Wisconsin Supreme Court virtually guaranteed that highly partisan political maps that favor Republicans will deplete Democratic voter power in future elections for the next ten years. Meanwhile, the ACLU of Wisconsin warns that state Republican efforts to limit access to absentee ballots, and erect more barriers in the way of voter registration, amount to a “brazen and deliberate attempt to suppress people’s voting rights.”
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s organization, the National Redistricting Action Fund, has filed a lawsuit in another Midwestern swing state, Ohio, claiming that its redrawn electoral map gives Republicans an unfair advantage, calling it a “partisan gerrymander in violation of the state constitution.”
The National Redistricting Action Fund, the ACLU of Wisconsin, and Democracy North Carolina are fighting for the survival of the democratic system. Patricia Sullivan, drawing insight from her brilliant study of Robert F. Kennedy, still cautions that even the most valiant state and local efforts are destined to fail without robust federal intervention.
“One lesson for the Biden Administration is to marshal all of its forces to fight for legislation to restore and expand the protection of voting rights, and expand and strengthen the efforts of the Justice Department to monitor and challenge voting rights violations,” Sullivan said during our conversation.
One obvious act in the mission to save democracy is to abolish the filibuster so that the Democratic majority in Congress can pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act, which together would not only restore the full strength of the Voting Rights Act, but expand upon the protections that it guarantees to all citizens.
In November, I asked the Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., one of the country’s foremost civil rights leaders, to comment on what is happening in South Carolina, the state where he was born and raised.
“The Electoral College, the filibuster and the gerrymander—all ‘laws’ that have historic racism at their core—are structural minority rules that allow a minority to exercise disproportionate power, and overrule the will of the majority,” Jackson says. “America is in danger of losing its democracy by allowing minority rules to lead to minority rule.”