Booked: How to Pick an Electorate, with Carol Anderson

Booked: How to Pick an Electorate, with Carol Anderson

Carol Anderson discusses the numerous strategies Republicans are using to keep voters of color away from the polls, and how progressives can overcome them heading into the midterms and beyond.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp recommended closing seven of nine polling stations in one majority-black county (Jessica McGowan / Getty Images)

Booked is a series of interviews about new books, hosted by Dissent editors.

In her new book One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy, distinguished historian and educator Carol Anderson makes it clear: There is an insidious, well-organized movement actively working to disenfranchise people of color. Drawing upon the historical trends and themes she explored in her award-winning book White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide (2016), Anderson reveals how voter obstruction became an essential political tool of the right. Anderson and I discussed voting rights, some of the progressive standouts of the 2018 election season, and grassroots efforts to fight back.

Marcia Chatelain: One of the things that I thought was really fascinating about One Person, No Vote is that you describe the direct line from the issues raised in your previous book, White Rage, to the problems with voting today. Can you give our readers a sense of what happened with the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision to confuse so much of the public about what was at stake?

Carol Anderson: In Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision, which came down during the Obama presidency, he argued that the Voting Rights Act was no longer necessary because the kind of virulent racism that led to the legislation’s creation was no longer in play. This was a new America, this was a kinder, gentler, much less racist America, he argued. He pointed to all of the African-American and Hispanic elected officials and a rise in black voter turnout as proof that racism no longer exists in the way that we understood it in the Jim Crow era.

Chatelain: The Supreme Court’s specialty is to declare racism over, or about five minutes away from ending.

Anderson: So within an hour or two of that decision, Texas announced its voter ID law. Alabama had passed a voter ID law in 2011 but the law was so racist that it could never get precleared through the Department of Justice. So, they sat on it. But after Shelby, it was implemented. And what do I mean by a racist voter ID law? It’s figuring out what kinds of identification African Americans have and don’t have, and then defining the key to the ballot box as being the one that black people don’t have.

Chatelain: How does the distinction between the driver’s license, the non-driver ID, and the gun registration card factor into your analysis?

Anderson: With Texas’s voter ID law, which was struck down last year for discrimination, only certain kinds of government-issued photo ID were acceptable. Your gun registration counted, but your student ID—from a public college like the University of Texas—did not. So you see how you pick an electorate. Texas knew that one-third of their counties did not have a Department of Motor Vehicles, and they had calculated that it would require a 250-mile round-trip in order to get a driver’s license. But if you don’t have a license, how are you going to get there? There’s no public transportation.

Chatelain: One of the reasons this happened with such efficiency is that we don’t have one federal standard for elections. It’s all on the state level, and we know where the idea of states’ rights has gotten us in the past.

Anderson: I’m in Georgia right now. The Republican nominee for governor (who is also the secretary of state) is Brian Kemp and his opponent is Stacey Abrams, a black woman. One of Kemp’s cronies was hired as a consultant for one of the boards of election and recommended shutting down a number of polls in counties that have sizable black populations. For instance, in Randolph County, which is over 60 percent black, he recommended that seven out of the nine polling stations be closed. Imagine having only two polling stations in a county!

Chatelain: The argument was this county only has 7,000 people, but we know that with some of these elections it comes down to 400 votes, so the idea that the number of ballots is disposable is fascinating.

Anderson: In Randolph County the board of elections voted to reject the plan in August, but they’re closing polls across the state. One-third of counties have fewer precincts than in 2012. But this slips under the radar of most Americans. As a nation we think of racism as the Klan. But this kind of cool, methodical, efficient, bureaucratic racism doesn’t hit that tripwire. Instead it comes off as they’re making sure that the Americans with Disabilities Act is adhered to.

Chatelain: With black candidates like Stacey, or like Andrew Gillum running for governor in Florida, are they organizing a critical mass of black voters, or are they riding a wave of progressivism that is actually a little bit more multiracial than their candidacies indicate? Who are they galvanizing in order to get across the finish line for the primaries?

Anderson: In counties with large black populations, Andrew Gillum won them outright. In counties where it was almost even, his opponent did a little bit better. And in counties that had a small number of African Americans he didn’t do well at all.

Chatelain: As well as regular campaigning, can candidates also divert some of their resources to fighting voter suppression, or do they have to find allies to do that work for them? I don’t even know if this is legal.

Anderson: I don’t know either. In the book I talk about how in Alabama, in the run up to last year’s special election between Roy Moore and Doug Jones, the state was deploying every method of voter suppression against the black population: voter ID, voter roll purges, felony disenfranchisement. But then you had civil society fighting back. It was civil society that really did the heavy lifting there of figuring out exactly how each one of these mechanisms worked, what the cracks in its legal armor were, and how to reach that black population that Alabama had done its best to discourage from voting.

Chatelain: In these conversations about voting, I always go in the direction of infrastructure. How do everyday citizens even know if their state is investing in not only voting machines but safe voting machines? How are questions like this obscured?

Anderson: So much of the voting process looks clean, efficient, and effective, but it’s not. Here in Georgia, our election machines do not have a paper component. So there’s no way to figure out clearly if they’ve been hacked. And they run on Windows 2000.

Chatelain: Really?

Anderson: Yes! The Department of Homeland Security warned our secretary of state under the Obama administration that Georgia’s machines were absolutely vulnerable. The feds wanted to give Georgia money to update the machines, and Kemp refused to accept the money until after the 2017 special elections when some DEF CON hackers were able to demonstrate that—boom—they could hack into the Georgia machines and basically take control of the entire voting process. After that he reluctantly agreed to take the money. But all 27,000 machines aren’t being replaced.

Chatelain: With secretary of state races in any state, how do you know which candidate is going to be accountable for voting?

Anderson: The secretary of state is crucial. I ask for our voters to listen to what the candidate is saying. If they’re using the words “voter fraud,” you don’t want that person anywhere near your vote. If they’re talking about expanding access via automatic voter registration, then that’s someone who believes in the franchise and will use the power of his or her office to protect the right to vote.

Chatelain: It’s incredibly appealing to think about progressive candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams running for Congress or for governor. I’m wondering if there needs to be a crop of progressive secretary of state candidates. Could we organize a movement of voter-forward people running for these positions across the country?

Anderson: I absolutely think so. In California Secretary of State Alex Padilla addressed the low turnout rate—it was 42 percent—by establishing automatic voter registration. Then he got high schoolers pre-registered, so when they turned eighteen they were automatically on the voter rolls.

Chatelain: Do you think that this could work in the South?

Anderson: Yes. I really do.

Chatelain: I think it’s interesting Senator Dick Durbin wrote the foreword for your book. Many in his party, the Democrats, say that we can change the minds of people who are already voting. And then on the other side there’s this idea that you can get new people to start voting. When we talk about candidates of color and talk about progressive candidates, the only thing we can do is to add to the voter rolls. Where do you think parties need to play a role in this?

Anderson: When I am giving talks about White Rage, I say, how many of you have heard, “How racist can the United States be? We elected a black man twice to the White House.” And the hands go up, and then I tell them, “No we did not.” Because not since 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act have the majority of white voters voted for the Democratic presidential candidate. The moment the federal government put its weight and power behind recognizing the rights of African-American citizens, the majority of white voters wanted nothing to do with the Democratic Party. So what put Obama in the White House? Yes, there was a cadre of whites who voted for him, but he brought 15 million new voters to the polls. He expanded the voting roll, and 2 million of those new voters were African Americans, 2 million were Latinos, 600,000 were Asian American, and he almost doubled the percentage of poor folks, people making less than $15,000 a year.

Chatelain: We just had the anniversary of the March on Washington, which was a time for a lot of reflection. This idea that there is a way to organize the poor toward a progressive political commitment is something that I think is different than the white working-class rhetoric. I’m thinking of Reverend William Barber at Aretha Franklin’s funeral talking about organizing poor white people in North Carolina. Where do you see the leadership around this very specific issue that intersects with so many levels of politics?

Anderson: I see this primarily coming from the grassroots mobilization. And what I see is that people are moving the party. Because what is very clear is that in this two-party system, one party has lost its ever-loving mind. I track that to that moment when the Republicans decided to invite white supremacy into its party with the Southern Strategy. Eventually that toxin took over and moved the moderates out, which leads to Trump.

Chatelain: I think in the Bush years there was a Republican fantasy that they could get new Latinx voters and even a few conservative black folks by focusing on social issues. It wasn’t effective but it was a gesture towards the idea of wanting to expand the rolls. But then they switch tactics, and the goal is now to just have fewer people of color voting.

Anderson: Their strategy for dealing with what for them is a demographic apocalypse is not to reform the party to speak to a broader constituency, but instead to keep that constituency from being able to gain full access to the ballot box. And so they go after students. Scott Walker removed a polling place from the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s campus and put it downtown.

Chatelain: I have a student right now organizing in North Carolina, and she said that one of the gerrymandered districts is right in the middle of the North Carolina A&T campus. The side with the dorms is one district, and the side with the administrative buildings is another district. Talking about voter suppression outside of gerrymandering is complicated because gerrymandering often dictates access to the resources that build up the infrastructure for voting, but gerrymandering also help secure some level of representation for people of color living in hyper-segregated areas. How do we grapple with that system when we think about getting more people to vote?

Anderson: One of the right’s strategies has been what they call packing, which is to draw a line around black neighborhoods and say, “That’s a district now, you’re going to get representation.” But that makes the representation tokenism. Because then the other districts are drawn and there’s not any population balance and you get this overrepresentation of white suburban and white rural areas in Congress or in the state legislature deciding how resources are going to be used. Here in Georgia, 66 percent of the state representatives are Republican, which means that you’ve got a massive dilution of the black, Latino, and Asian-American voters here because those are the groups that overwhelmingly vote Democratic. There are a handful of black representatives, but you can count them on one hand with some fingers left over.

Chatelain: We see the way this strategy works in the presidential election and congressional races, but it also has impact on the state level.

Anderson: The Georgie State Senate is 66 percent Republican, and our state House is nearly 64 percent Republican. Georgia did not expand Medicaid in order to provide additional access to the Affordable Care Act for its citizens. Georgia is in the third quartile in terms of incidence of cancer, but it is in the second quartile for cancer mortality rates, because if you don’t have access to healthcare that cancer will grow and kill you. People who want the ACA are dying because they cannot get access to health insurance. And it’s legislators that pass the voter suppression acts. In 2010 in Alabama, Republican strategists were recorded discussing how to depress the black voter turnout. They didn’t want to include a pro-gambling referendum on the ballot because if they did, they said, “Every black, every illiterate . . . would be bused [to the polls] on HUD financed buses.”

Chatelain: The other part of this is the question of campaign finance. So when we think about access to the vote, there’s another question of what exactly are you giving people an opportunity to vote for? What are people supposed to be voting for that they should be energized by? And I think that this is where the quality of people running for office has to be tied to voting rights. When they are disconnected it just seems like an empty admonishment.

Anderson: So this is why I started the book with the pundit analysis of the 2016 presidential election. It was all about how black people didn’t show up because Hillary sucked. I thought, do you not understand that this is the first presidential election since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act? The Republicans were congratulating themselves because African-American early voting decreased by 8.5 percent.

And so to the question: are we giving them something to vote for? I think that grassroots mobilization has been key. In Alabama organizers are sitting down and asking folks, “What’s important to you?” And people are saying the same thing. “I want to be able to go to the doctor.” “I want good schools for my kids.” “I want to be able to make a living wage.” “I want the cops to quit beating down on me”

Chatelain: Basic survival.

Anderson: This is basic, and this is why I also bristle when Chuck Todd asked Andrew Gillum, “Are you a socialist?” on MSNBC.

Chatelain: I have to question the credentials and level of education of every pundit who is unable to articulate what they mean by socialism and the idea that even a modest democratic socialist platform is such a foreign idea. What do you see as the clear way forward for those of us who want to make sure that the vote is not only protected but the vote is something of substance?

Anderson: It is a multistep process. The first step, and I think that Alabama provided a beautiful template, is getting voters who have been suppressed what they need—be it a government-issued photo ID, information about how to register, transport to the polls. This sounds mundane and unsexy, but when you think about it, this is like Septima Clark’s civic education classes so folks could pass the literacy test. Second is holding the Democrats fully accountable for the kinds of policies that protect the vote, enhance the vote, and strengthen the vote. Then after the census we need to put in place a series of nonpartisan redistricting commissions that get rid of extreme partisan gerrymandering. That is one of the things that I noted in the book: even though the bulk of the people hated the Republicans’ tax plan, it sailed through. And that’s because Republicans felt safe in their districts.

Chatelain: It’s often black women leading the fight. They are organizing the voting, raising awareness, building the infrastructure, and, increasingly, running for office. I had the opportunity very briefly to meet Lucia McBath. Her path to office wasn’t an Ivy League law school. She decided to run because someone had a gun and killed her child. Then you have someone like Stacey Abrams who was a Truman Scholar, went to Spelman, Yale Law School, worked in private industry, and then served in the Georgia state House. It’s shocking that she hasn’t run for governor already. You’re getting black women into politics through these multiple pathways. So considering this diversity, how are black women turning up the heat to make sure that we go out and vote?

Anderson: Ninety-four percent of black women did not vote for Trump, because we knew. And in Alabama a lot of the work was done with, by, and for black women. Those conversations about education and jobs and healthcare and criminal justice reform happened because black women grasped the community component. A strengthened viable community in which their families could live— not just survive, but live—would require all those things. I see this moment that we’re in as an unveiling. The nasty, venal policies emanating out of this regime are destroying the very ability of black women’s families and black women themselves to be able to live.

Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University and author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy (2018) and White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Nation’s Divide (2016).

Marcia Chatelain is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University and a contributing editor at Dissent. She is the author of South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration (2015).