First in a series on the 2020 US Election
With just one day to go before the American Presidential election, the signs are unmistakably clear that voter suppression remains a fundamental problem in American electoral politics. Among the many ways in which American democracy may be distinguished, and certainly not for the better, from other democracies is its long, unparalleled, and entirely unabashed record of voter suppression. One might think that voter suppression is a relic of the past, its history rooted in the idea, present at the inception of the Republic, that the right to exercise of the vote could only be granted to select constituencies. To the contrary, the practice of voter suppression has displayed a striking resilience, suggesting the manner in which American democracy is as much rooted in the idea of exclusion as it is in the notion of inclusivity. Indeed, though Americans like to flaunt their democracy as the envy of the world, American politics is virtually unthinkable without voter suppression. It is as American as apple pie and its remains, to the present day, a weapon with which white supremacists, whether parading as armed militiamen or dressed up as governors, senators, state officials, county clerks and registrars, intimidate some people from voting and in some cases outright deny them their constitutional right to vote.
The extension of the franchise to increasingly larger segments of the population is everywhere in the world a story of how barriers to voting were gradually removed. In colonial India, for instance, the electorate was miniscule, initially confined literally to a few dozen people when the first Central Legislative Council constituted under the Indian Council Acts 1901 was seated with 68 members, 27 of whom were elected by special constituencies. The franchise saw some expansion as a consequence of the Government of India Act 1935, but it is only in the aftermath of independence that universal franchise was extended across the country. This franchise, extended to women as much as men, lower castes as much as upper castes, and religious minorities including Muslims as much as Hindus, was exercised by nearly 106 million people in the first General Election in 1951-52. India has successfully carried out seventeen general elections, the last one in 2019, and the idea of voter suppression was nowhere part of the political discourse. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the idea of “booth capturing” entered the political vocabulary and since then allegations of irregularities in the conduct of elections have continued to increase. In the 2019 election to the 17th Lok Sabha, there was some discussion of “millions” of women and Muslims whose names had allegedly disappeared from the electoral rolls, but “voter suppression” has in general not been part of the political discussion in India. On the contrary, the most enduring images that persist of Indian elections are of poor, working-class people and village women queued up for hours outside polling stations, diligently exercising their right to vote. Indian elections have even entered into modern political lore for the perseverance with which electoral officials have sought the vote of a handful of people in the most inaccessible regions of the country—in villages in northeast India that can only be reached after several days of travel, or in the midst of the Gir Forest, the home of the Asiatic Lion.
The United States, even as it claims the mantle of being the world’s first constitutional democracy and the torchbearer of freedom, has in contrast a long and sordid history of voter suppression. The franchise in the late 18th century extended only to white men of some affluence; over time, restrictions on ownership of property were loosened and in 1828 all white men were allowed to vote in most states. North Carolina, in 1856, became the last state to remove property qualifications and therefore opened up voting rights to all white males. With the official “end” of slavery in consequence of the Emancipation Proclamation and the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, US citizenship was extended to Black people, but the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution (1868) devolved voting regulations to the states. The 15th Amendment (1870) was, however, unambiguous in conferring upon Black people the right to vote: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Yet, since the passage of the 15th Amendment 150 years ago, American political history is characterized by the unremitting effort on the part of ruling white elites to keep the vote out of the hands of Black people and it is to this history to which we can turn as voter suppression remains a problem unique to the US among democracies in the Western world. It is necessary to add that this account is, of course, not intended as a comprehensive summary of restrictions on voting imposed on various constituencies over the course of American history. Women, for instance, did not win the right to vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The case of the suppression of the Native American vote is just as egregious. Native Americans were only admitted to full US citizenship in 1924, but several states continued to deny them the vote: some states put forward the argument that Indians living on a reservation were subjects of another ‘nation’, while other states demurred on the pretext that Indians did not pay taxes. It wasn’t until 1948 that the restriction in the constitution of New Mexico that prevented Native Americans from voting was finally lifted.
It is, however, the suppression of the vote of Black people that offers unimpeachable evidence of the fact that the history of the US cannot even remotely be thought outside the parameters of racism. Whatever other distinctive features the US may have, the country has remained solidly wedded to the notion of an ineradicable racial hierarchy—and the present generation of politicians who give their allegiance to the Republican party are as committed, though of course they have mastered adequately the arts of disguise, dissimulation, and chicanery, as those of an earlier generation to finding ways to withhold the vote from Black people. More recent revisionist readings of American history have established that the aftermath of the end of slavery ushered in new forms of extreme servitude for African Americans even if a few Black people were able to lift themselves up and lead a life of dignity; indeed, the state of Mississippi, notorious during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s for the reign of terror unleased upon Black people and their white supporters, even sent two Black men to the US Senate, in 1870 and 1875. Not until a century later, in 1967, would another Black man from Mississippi follow in their footsteps. Why that should have been so is evident from the discerning opinion of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who in a speech delivered in Boston in 1869 noted that “Southern gentlemen . . . want to be independent of the negro. They believed in slavery and they believe in it still. They believed in an aristocratic class, and they believe in it still . . .” Why it would take a century to seat another Black Mississippian in the US senate after 1875 is also conveyed amply in the remarks of the president of the state constitutional convention in Mississippi in 1890, who stated candidly that the most pressing task of the convention was to find ways to prevent Black men from voting: “This ballot system must be so arranged as to effect one object”, he noted, adding this: “we find the two races now together, the rule of one of which has always meant economic and moral ruin; we find another race whose rule has always meant prosperity and happiness, and prosperity and happiness to all races.”
In the century that elapsed from the end of the Civil War to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, every tactic of intimidation and terror in the arsenal of the white man was used to keep Black people from voting. Slave owners had deployed dogs to hunt down runaway slaves; their descendants unhesitatingly used guns when the more conventional tactics of imposing literacy tests or “good character” tests failed. In an extraordinarily moving not to say revelatory scene in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film Selma, Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey) appears before the registrar in Dallas County, Alabama in yet another attempt to register as a voter. She is asked to recite the Preamble to the US Constitution, which she does so—with grace and dignity. Then he asks her how many country judges there are in Alabama. She replies, accurately: “67”. And then, impossibly, he demands of her: “Name them.” The application is stamped “rejected”, and she is sent packing home. A Black person who sought to register to vote, that is to exercise what was a constitutional right, did so at peril to his or her life. In Lowndes County, Alabama, where African Americans accounted for 80 percent of the population of around 15,000, not one Black person was registered to vote before 1 March 1965.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to undo this shameless state of affairs. But if the ingenuity of white politicians continues to be directed at no other goal than to reduce Black people to a state of submission, to keep them in their place, then it should come as no surprise that many other modes for the suppression of the Black vote have been found. Much of the contemporary political discussion has been focused on new voter ID laws that Republican-run states have feverishly passed over the last decade. These laws disenfranchise more than Black people, targeting immigrants more generally, as well as the poor, elderly, students, and transients—all those who are likely not to have a driver’s license or some other government-issued ID. It is, however, in the matter of voting rights for felons that the US shows, yet again, why it remains the most regressive democracy in the Western world, and why the suppression of the rights of Black voters is ineradicably stitched into the fabric of the worldview of white elites and politicians. After at least two decades of activism that has sought to mitigate the liabilities imposed on felons, as of this date in only two states—Maine and Vermont—do felons never lose their right to vote, even during their incarceration. In another 37 states, felons lose their right to vote during the period of their incarceration; among these states, 21 obstruct felons from voting even after their release. And, most pointedly, in 11 states felons lose their right to vote in perpetuity for some crimes. Since men, and specifically Black men, constitute a vastly disproportionate number of felons, the conclusion is inescapable: whatever rights may have been granted to Black people by the Voting Rights Act have, in fact, been stolen from them. In the 2016 Presidential election, as a number of studies have shown, nearly six million felons were prevented from voting.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act gave the Justice Department veto power over any new state laws or regulations passed in jurisdictions that had a proven history of racial discrimination. Yet, in 2013, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the US Supreme Court by a vote of 5-4 struck down this “preclearance” provision that sought to prevent states from overriding the Voting Rights Act with the argument that racial discrimination was no longer pervasive enough to justify the retention of this part of the law. The court’s decision has, in its own way, contributed to the present climate of opinion where voter suppression is viewed, not as something askance much less as something that should be simply unthinkable, but rather as part of normal politics. That there should still be attempts in the United States of America, many of them encouraged by the “Justice Department” and the courts of this land, to close polls without giving people a chance to vote, to reject mail-in ballots, to prevent entire constituencies from voting, to have polling booths staked by heavily armed militiamen, to obstruct funding for the US Postal Service with the explicitly stated aim of preventing ballots from being delivered and counted—that all this and more should be transpiring in the year 2020 is testimony to the wholly shambolic nature of American democracy. Once again, Americans can crow about their exceptionalism.
This is a revised version of an essay first published under the same title on abplive.in, here.