Are “Election Police” & Black People in Shackles Coming to All Red States Everywhere?
Voting rights are essential to maintaining a democracy; without them nations quickly devolve into oligarchy and then autocracy...
Without free and fair elections and widespread voter participation, you can’t have a functioning democratic republic. Republicans know this: that’s why they’re trying to end free and fair elections.
Case in point:
Rhoshanda Bryant-Jones is a 57-year-old Army veteran who’s afraid to vote in Florida. She’s not alone: just before the 2022 election, DeSantis’ new “election police” began rounding up Black people and parading them in shackles on TV for the crime of “voter fraud.”
Fourteen years ago, Bryant-Jones got caught up in drug addiction and ended up with a felony conviction for a drug offense, which made her ineligible to vote in Florida; she’s since gotten clean and now works to help addicts.
Felon disenfranchisement laws were a common way to suppress the Black vote in the Confederate states, and explains why in Florida one in five African American adults — well over a million — have a felony conviction and, until recently, were unable to vote.
And it’s not that Black people are more likely to commit crimes than white people; it’s that they’re more likely to get caught, prosecuted, and convicted. Black people in Florida do not, for example, jaywalk three times more than white people but they are three times more likely to be cited by the police for it.
But for most of the past century — and particularly since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 — arresting Black people for even the most minor felonies was a great way to get them permanently off the voting rolls.
Which is why Florida’s citizens got together and passed a ballot measure to give ex-felons who’d served their time their vote back (like in Blue states), but DeSantis and his Republican-controlled legislature modified the new law with a provision that all fines must be paid before an ex-felon could vote. If they weren’t paid, that person could be looking at years in prison for “voter fraud” if they showed up and cast a ballot.
The problem is that there’s no database for who owes what to whom in Florida; when DeSantis’ new election police tracked down ex-felon voters, they were able to find some who still owed money for fines that they didn’t even know about. Those were the people they arrested.
As The Washington Post reported yesterday:
“Bryant-Jones paid $800 to the court when her last conviction was working through the system. She believed that amount was her only balance until 2021, when during a background check she learned she owed thousands more. She quickly paid that amount but still does not see it as safe to vote.”
Ron DeSantis’ and Greg Abbott’s efforts to track down and arrest Black voters and then parade them in front of TV cameras had two effects, both intended.
First, it scared the hell out of a lot of Black people who knew well how selectively laws can be enforced against them and how easy it is to get a white jury to throw a Black person in jail for just about anything.
Black voter turnout in Florida appears to have collapsed following those arrests going into the 2020 election, apparently taking down the Democratic candidates with it. As the Miami NBC-TV affiliate noted, city-dwelling [Black] Democrats simply failed to show up:
“DeSantis flipped counties President Joe Biden won in 2022: Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Duval. One major problem for Democrats was a mismatch in turnout. Republican registered voters showed up, and Democrats did not, according to unofficial results posted online by Florida's supervisors of elections.
“In Miami-Dade County, there are 135,229 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but more Republicans showed up: 61% of registered Republicans voted and only 46% of Democrat registered voters.
“There are 106,299 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Palm Beach County. 55% of registered Democrats showed up and 66% of Republicans showed up.
“The same thing happened in Central and North Florida in several major urban areas. There are 53,156 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Hillsborough County but only 39% of Democrats showed up and 44% of Republicans showed up to vote.
“In North Florida’s Duval County, there are 31,173 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but 65% of Republican voters voted compared to 49% of Democrats.”
Second, high-profile arrests for “voter fraud” gave credibility to the Republicans’ nationwide efforts to make it harder to vote, particularly for people living in cities. (The real red/blue divide in America is geographic: rural areas are overwhelmingly Republican, cities mostly Democratic.)
Which is why in Georgia, Governor Kemp signed a new law, SB 202, that has measurably changed how Georgians must vote. As investigative reporter Greg Palast documented:
— “From the 2020/2021 elections to November 2022, mail-in ballots in Georgia plummeted by over 1 million, a breathtaking 81% loss of ballots — concentrated in Black-majority urban counties.
— “A principal cause of this drop-off: SB202, signed into law last year, limits dropboxes to no more than one per one-hundred thousand active voters. This limit affects ONLY the four large Greater Atlanta counties which are 59.7% non-white. The law shuttered 77% of Atlanta-area dropboxes, declining from 107 to 25.
— “At the same time, small rural counties were required to ADD at least one dropbox. The result: a radical reduction in dropboxes in urban non-white counties to 55,862 voters per dropbox. In the remainder of Georgia, 65% white, only 18,000 voters must share a dropbox, a 314% difference.
— “Absentee balloting in the four Atlanta-area counties plummeted by 83%, not only because of the limits on number of dropboxes, but because SB202 slashed their availability: Dropboxes could only be placed INSIDE county offices and early voting stations. This sabotages the purpose of dropboxes — providing access to those with jobs or obligations that require voting outside business hours.”
Kemp was ready for those people who decided to vote in person this time, too. As Palast notes:
“The reduction in Election Run-off time from two months to just 28 days has slashed early voting to only between 5 and 7 days.”
This brought out the GOP’s second historically favorite voter suppression method: long lines in Democratic strongholds.
Working class people can’t afford to spend half a day waiting in line to vote, and Republicans know it.
Long lines to vote in majority-Republican precincts are largely non-existent nationwide, but every election we’re treated to pictures of them in majority-Democratic precincts in cities in Red states.
The next low-hanging fruit for the Republican voter suppression effort was attacking mail-in voting.
In most states when you vote by mail you sign your ballot or the envelope that contains it, and an election monitor or judge can decide if your signature matches that of your voter registration card or drivers’ license.
Signatures change over time, and people also tend to write their signatures differently when they’re in a hurry, like at the DMV. So, the GOP launched a campaign to get Republican election monitors out to “check signatures for fraud” in precincts where large percentages of Democrats vote.
Which makes it easy for these election monitors to “challenge” your vote, meaning it won’t be counted unless or until you show up in person to verify that you are actually you. And most people don’t know they’ve been challenged until long after the election is over.
Mail-in ballots are also vulnerable to late delivery, particularly since Lewis DeJoy slowed down our mail months before the 2020 election by destroying over a hundred high-speed multi-million-dollar mail sorting machines.
And let’s not forget the current favorite method of voter suppression used by Republican governors and secretaries of state: voter purges.
The first time Brian Kemp faced Stacey Abrams for governor of Georgia, for example, he purged 107,000 people off the voting rolls just prior to the election, all of them registered voters who failed to return a caging card.
He “won” by 50,000 votes, and then repeated his efforts again in 2022 through his Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger (whose name, ironically, is correctly pronounced “Raff–ens–purger”).
Leading up to the 2020 election, Raffensperger sent caging letters to 185,666 Georgians while Stacey Abrams was frantically trying to get 100,000 voters registered to make up for the previous purge. The result was that Kemp and Raffensperger won the election handily.
When Democrats sued Ohio’s Secretary of State John Husted for his voter purges in that state’s largest (and Blackest) cities in the 2018 case Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, Supreme Court Associate Justice Sam Alito opened his decision approving of the new GOP voter purge strategy, codifying the GOP “voter fraud” scam by quoting meaningless statistics:
“It has been estimated that 24 million voter registrations in the United States—about one in eight—are either invalid or significantly inaccurate. And about 2.75 million people are said to be registered to vote in more than one State.”
It’s a completely empty argument because those numbers, while accurate, don’t mean that any of those duplicate voter registrations are ever used.
It’s rare that people who move from state to state bother to notify the Secretary of State of the state they left that they no longer live there, so of course there are many Americans registered to vote in multiple states or at wrong addresses.
In the past 45 years, I’ve moved from Michigan to New Hampshire to Germany to Georgia to Vermont to Oregon to Washington DC and back to Oregon. I’ve never notified anybody that I’d left the state I moved from. And there’s nothing wrong with that: it’s normal.
Most people do the same as me, and that doesn’t mean any of them are fraudulently voting: this, like the “voter fraud” scam, is a “problem” that does not need a solution. States generally remove people from voting rolls when drivers’ licenses expire and are not renewed, or when people stop paying state income taxes. It’s slightly slower, but works just fine.
Nonetheless, Alito thought it was a fine excuse to give the legal endorsement to Republican voter purging on an industrial scale.
In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote:
“It is unsurprising in light of the history of such purge programs that numerous amici report that the Supplemental Process has disproportionately affected minority, low-income, disabled, and veteran voters.
“As one example, amici point to an investigation that revealed that in Hamilton County, ‘African-American-majority neighborhoods in downtown Cincinnati had 10% of their voters removed due to inactivity’ since 2012, as compared to only 4% of voters in a suburban, majority-white neighborhood.”
But the five Republicans on the Court prevailed, and Ohio’s purger-in-chief John Husted hailed his victory and this new way of purging Democratic-leaning voters as a “model for other [Republican] states” to follow.
Purging Democratic voters from the rolls has now gone nationwide, at least in states where voting is controlled by Republicans.
Greg Palast estimates there were at least 4 million fully legal and appropriately registered voters purged just in 2022, although the history Pew documented from 2016-1018 suggests the number may have been over ten million. And Red states are, as you read these words, vigorously purging voters from the rolls, predominantly in Blue cities and among Black populations, which vote more than 80 percent Democratic.
Amazingly, none of this is new: it’s been going on for a long time and we don’t even have to look back to the era of Jim Crow to find it.
While preventing people from voting has a long and sordid history in the United States, the modern-day Republican Party’s reliance on voter suppression as a primary tool to win elections amped up dramatically in 1993. That was the year when 27 Democrats and one Republican cosponsored HR2, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), sometimes called the Motor Voter Act.
In the House, it got 238 Democratic votes and 20 from Republicans; in the Senate, every Republican but two voted against it, while every present Democrat voted for it (Jay Rockefeller missed the vote).
Several parts of the legislation freaked out the GOP, the most prominent being that it required every state to let people register to vote when they presented themselves at DMVs to apply for a new or renewed driver’s license (this part is called Article 5 of the Act).
Other objectionable language in the Act included its preamble, which numerous Republicans thought might cause no end of problems if the Supreme Court were ever to try to enforce it.
The preamble to the bill, now Title 42, Section 1973gg, is a long, three-part run-on sentence that says, in clear and straightforward language,
The Congress finds that—
1) the right of citizens of the United States to vote is a fundamental right;
(2) it is the duty of the Federal, State, and local governments to promote the exercise of that right; and
(3) discriminatory and unfair registration laws and procedures can have a direct and damaging effect on voter participation in elections for Federal office and disproportionately harm voter participation by various groups, including racial minorities.
Republicans probably could have relaxed. The only significant ruling by the US Supreme Court citing the NVRA was in 2018, in Husted v. Randolph, in which Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion allowing John Husted, Ohio’s secretary of state, to continue with an aggressive purge of voters from that state’s rolls heading toward the 2018 election.
In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that only around 4 percent of Americans move out of their county every year, yet:
“The record shows that in 2012 Ohio identified about 1.5 million registered voters—nearly 20% of its 8 million registered voters—as likely ineligible to remain on the federal voter roll because they changed their residences.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent was even more scathing:
“Congress enacted the NVRA against the backdrop of substantial efforts by States to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters,” she wrote, “including programs that purged eligible voters from registration lists because they failed to vote in prior elections. The Court errs in ignoring this history and distorting the statutory text to arrive at a conclusion that not only is contrary to the plain language of the NVRA but also contradicts the essential purposes of the statute, ultimately sanctioning the very purging that Congress expressly sought to protect against.”
She quoted the NVRA’s preamble and, essentially, accused the Republican majority (it was a 5–4 decision) of helping states engage in racial discrimination in the voting process.
Now what was once called caging — challenging voters’ registration status by, for example, sending out postcards to voters and then purging them from the rolls if they fail to return the cards — has been granted the seal of approval by the Supreme Court and, in the years since Shelby County, has spread to nearly 20 Republican-controlled states.
Challenging this avalanche of voter suppression efforts, The Washington Post reported yesterday that Rhoshanda Bryant-Jones is one of four people who filed a lawsuit against DeSantis for voter suppression. As the Post notes:
“The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, argues that a lack of a reliable database allowing people with convictions to determine their voter eligibility status is unconstitutional and a failure to adhere to Amendment 4, a ballot initiative passed in 2018 to grant voting rights to people with felony records who are in good standing with the law.”
Also, this week, Democrats in the House and Senate have put forward a new voter rights law titled the Freedom to Vote Act that reiterates the Motor Voter law’s assertion that American citizens have a right to vote and standardizes practices nationwide.
While it has little chance of passing out of a Republican-controlled House or getting past a Senate filibuster as long as Manchin and Sinema continue to take GOP-aligned money, it’s still worth calling your member of Congress and your two senators at 202-224-3121 to let them know you support it.
Voting rights are essential to maintaining a democracy; without them nations quickly devolve into oligarchy and then autocracy.
We need to get ready to hit the ground running with voting rights legislation in 2025, should Democrats be able to hold the Senate and White House and recapture the House in the November 2024 election coming up.