Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020
Speaking before a Virginia Commonwealth University crowd over Zoom, Carol Anderson, Ph.D., author of VCU’s 2020 Common Book, “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy,” began her talk Wednesday evening with the story of Maceo Snipes.
Snipes, a Black man and World War II veteran, was determined to vote in Georgia’s 1946 gubernatorial election in which one candidate, Eugene Talmadge, was running on a platform to “keep them right where they belong,” Anderson said.
“Well, Maceo, who had fought fascists, knew where he belonged. He belonged in a democracy and he was determined to vote as an American citizen. And so in Taylor County, Georgia, he went to the polling station and there was a sign over the building that says something to the effect of ‘The first Negro that votes, that’ll be the last thing he ever does,’” Anderson said. “Maceo looked at that sign and said, ‘What you got? I fought fascists.’ And he went right on in and he cast his ballot.”
The next day, four white men arrived at Snipes’ grandfather’s house, where Snipes was having dinner with his mother. Snipes went outside and was shot. He died from his injuries two days later.
“He died and the message was clear: You vote, you die,” Anderson said. “In fact, Maceo was the only African American to vote in Taylor County, Georgia, in 1946.”
A long history of voter suppression
That kind of physical violence is what may come to mind when thinking about voter suppression and disenfranchisement in the past. But, Anderson said, it is another kind of violence — bureaucratic violence — that today “rains down in terms of policies, court cases that look legitimate in ways that the execution of Maceo Snipes could not.”
These policies, which she calls “Jim Crow 2.0,” include voter ID requirements, purges of registered voters from voter rolls, and the shuttering of early voting sites in Black communities. They are designed to systemically suppress African American voter participation in U.S. elections.
Anderson, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University, delivered her talk, “A Conversation with Carol Anderson: Voter Rights and Voter Suppression,” as VCU students and the wider community are reading “One Person, No Vote” as the university’s Common Book.
Published in 2018, “One Person, No Vote” explains what happened following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013 that struck down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and enabled states with a history of racial discrimination to change voting requirements without approval from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The book was distributed to all incoming first-year students through a universitywide initiative that aims to welcome new students into the vibrant intellectual culture of the university. Co-sponsored by University College and the Office of the Provost, the Common Book program seeks to provide students with an opportunity to explore complex social issues through an interdisciplinary lens.
In her lecture, Anderson said Jim Crow 2.0 voter suppression tactics echo early schemes meant to keep Black people from voting.
In Mississippi in 1890, she said, the state legislature was concerned that 190,000 African Americans were registered to vote after the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870 and prohibited the federal government and states from denying the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
The Mississippi lawmakers knew they couldn’t write a law explicitly barring Black people from voting, so they instead implemented policies that effectively blocked Black people from voting while issuing justifications that sounded ostensibly legitimate. They said the measures were needed to clean up corruption at the ballot box, stop voter fraud and maintain the integrity of elections.
One such policy was the poll tax.
“The poll tax would sound legitimate,” she said. “It would go something like this: ‘Democracy is expensive. You know, holding all of these elections, you’ve got people who are taking the ballots, people who are counting the ballots, you’ve got to have places where the ballots are cast. All of that costs money. Elections cost money. So if you really believed in democracy, you would be willing to pay a small fee in order to ensure that democracy ran smoothly. A small fee to vote.’”
Yet African Americans had endured hundreds of years of slavery and unpaid labor, followed by Black codes designed to restrict African Americans’ freedom and ability to earn decent wages.
“The systemic endemic poverty brought on by those societally imposed conditions makes this nominal fee not so nominal,” Anderson said. “In fact, the poll tax amounted to 2% to 6% of a Mississippi farm family’s annual income. Imagine paying 2% to 6% of your annual income to vote.”
The poll tax also required a cash payment, due in the spring. But sharecroppers rarely had cash until October or November. Plus, the poll tax was cumulative. “So if you couldn’t pay your poll tax that first year when you turned 21 and you couldn’t pay it until you were 41 — 20 years later — you’d owe 20 years of back poll taxes before you could vote,” she said. “The poll tax was lethal.”
The Voting Rights Act, and Shelby County v. Holder
The poll tax and other parts of the Mississippi Plan, such as literacy tests designed to depress the Black vote, “metastasized” throughout the South. It was so effective, Anderson said, “by 1940, only 3% of age-eligible African American adults were registered to vote in the South.”
It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that things began to change. The law required that jurisdictions with a documented history of discriminating against its residents’ right to vote had to get any changes dealing with voting pre-cleared by the Justice Department or by a federal court in Washington.
“The Voting Rights Act had enormous power,” Anderson said. “In the early 1960s, before the Voting Rights Act, only 5% of Black voting age eligible Mississippians were registered to vote. ... Two years after the Voting Rights Act, it was almost 60%.”
In 2013, however, the U.S Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the pre-clearance section of the law, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing that is was no longer needed and did not reflect current-day conditions.
Within two hours of that decision, Anderson said, Texas had implemented a law to require a government issued photo ID to vote.
“That voter ID law was predicated on the same kinds of language that the Mississippi Plan of 1890 had been. That language of massive rampant voter fraud, that what the ID is designed to do is to bring integrity back to the ballot box, to stop people from stealing our elections, to protect democracy,” she said.
Yet voter fraud, she said, is a “lie.” A study of votes cast in the United States between 2000 and 2014 found that out of 1 billion votes over 15 years, there were only 31 cases of voter impersonation, she said.
“That’s something like .00000000. What it isn’t is massive rampant voter fraud.”
Voter ID laws
Texas’ voter ID law is part of what Anderson considers to be a modern day Mississippi Plan. The law, she noted, allowed voters to use their concealed carry permits to vote, but would not allow student IDs issued by a state college or university.
“So you can see, by identifying what types of IDs are eligible, are valid for the vote, you can actually craft political leanings of your electorate,” she said. “One of the ways that voter ID works in sounding so reasonable and logical is that it plays to a middle class norm. Everybody’s got an ID. How hard is it to get an ID? If you really wanted to vote, you would just pull out your ID. It almost sounds like, if you really wanted to protect this democracy, you would pay a small fee.”
Yet there are stark racial and class disparities in terms of access to government issued photo IDs. In one-third of Texas counties, there is no Department of Motor Vehicles that could issue an ID. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund found that there were 1.6 million Texans who lack an ID, and 600,000 of them were already registered voters, she said.
“So I ask: If you don’t have a driver’s license and you don’t drive, if you [don’t have access to] public transportation, how do you go 250 miles to get the driver’s license that you need in order to vote?” Anderson said.
In Alabama, a voter ID law would not allow government issued public housing IDs to be used to vote, in a state where 71% of public housing residents were Black. And in Wisconsin, a study found that following a voter ID law, 8% of white people were blocked from the ballot box because they didn’t have an ID, while more than 25% of Black people were denied.
Another mechanism of Jim Crow 2.0, Anderson said, is “Exact Match,” which was implemented in the 2018 gubernatorial election in Georgia. It says that in order to vote, a person’s voter registration card must exactly match the information in the state driver’s license database or in the Social Security Administration’s database.
“Earlier when this program had been used and the state of Georgia had been sued, a judge found that the program was racially discriminatory because it privileged Anglicized names. Instead of scrapping it, Georgia made that program a law,” she said. “And it was used with lethal effect in October 2018, shortly before the election. When Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who was running for governor, removed 53,000 voter registrations from the list, 70% of those removed were African American.”
Curtailing early voting is another tactic, Anderson said.
“The way early voting works is it is designed to provide a greater opportunity for those who are hourly workers, those who have to punch a clock, to give them options to vote so that they don’t have to choose, on Election Day, whether to stand in line or go to work, whether to vote or whether to put food on the table,” she said. “So early voting is an expansion of democracy.”
Following Barack Obama’s surprise victory in Indiana in 2008, lawmakers realized that it was largely due to a disproportionate number of Black people voting early. So the legislature passed a law that said counties with more than 325,000 residents could have only one early voting location, while counties with fewer than 325,000 residents could have more.
“That’s not logical. Unless you look at that there are only three counties in Indiana that have more than 325,000 people. Those counties include the city of Gary, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis. Combined, almost 70% of the state’s Black population live in those three counties,” she said. “And they have now been reduced to one early voting site.”
As a result, she said, in the 2016 election, Marion County, where Indianapolis is, early voting went down by more than 25%. In Hamilton County, where additional early voting sites were allowed, early voting went up 62%.
Jim Crow 2.0 policies, Anderson said, show that policymakers can craft what happens in an election by the way they deploy resources and where they deploy them.
“It’s not like Maceo Snipes’ firing squad,” she said, “but the civic death that rains down on American citizens’ right to vote is just as lethal.”
Yet there are signs for hope, she said. The 2018 midterm voter turnout was at a level not seen since 1914. And the 2020 election is on pace for record-breaking turnout, despite the pandemic.
“People are hungry for democracy, but what we shouldn’t have to do is stand like we did in Georgia, in 11-hour lines, to be able to vote,” she said. “We continue to organize, mobilize and vote for those who believe in democracy. And we will have a very different, more inclusive, powerful, engaging, vibrant nation.”
Subscribe to VCU News
Subscribe to VCU News at newsletter.vcu.edu and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox.