I am currently reading Capital And Ideology by the French economist Thomas Piketty. The book is very long, packed with interesting discussions and charts. One chart really grabbed me and I’d like to discuss it with you today.
Among other data on the chart was the voter turnout percentage for post-World War II American presidential elections. (American voter turnout is terrible when compared with other major democratic industrialized powers. That is not the issue I want to get into today.) The highest percentage turnout was in 1964. Not even 2008 with all its excitement and record high black turnout exceeded ‘64’s turnout. The 1960 contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was especially exciting in that it was the first time a Catholic had a good chance of capturing the presidency and it also made for a generational change in leadership. Yet, the 1964 contest between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater, while significant, was not as groundbreaking or projected to be as close. What happened between the 1964 election and all subsequent elections? I’d like to advance my theory.
In 1965 President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which guaranteed the vote to African-Americans. The legend is that after he signed it he said, “We [the Democrats] just lost the South for a generation.” LBJ was wrong on two counts. The Democratic Party started losing the South back in about 1947; remember that Strom Thurmond won four southern states (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina) in the 1948 election running as a Dixiecrat. Today what is more important is that the Democratic Party has still lost the south in that the segregationist Democrats of pre-1965 and their decedents vote Republican.
For decades voter suppression had been a hallmark of how local southern politics was practiced (by the then-Democrats who became temporary Dixiecrats and later Republicans). While southern blacks may have had the legal right to register and vote much was done to discourage them from doing so. In 2012 when I was working for the Obama campaign in North Carolina one of the obstacles to getting African-Americans to register and vote was the belief by many that if they voted they would be subject to retaliation. In earlier, but not that distant, days the retaliation took the form of firebombing, shootings and lynching by the Ku Klux Klan.
Two incidents I remember vividly are sitting in the home of a friend who told me the history of its remodeling; one part restored from a Klan firebombing; the other an addition. My friend’s “sin” was registering voters. I also remember sitting on the front porch of another friend’s home that he inherited from his late father. He pointed out where the bullets had gone through the front wall one night. His father had committed the same “transgression” of registering voters. I heard many stories of black people voting only to go into work the next day and having their white bosses tell them their services were no longer needed. The laws may have eliminated the discriminatory practices that denied blacks the right to register, but that was only half the battle. Votes, not registrations, win elections. Who you vote for is private, but of necessity, whether or not you voted is public record. With blacks overwhelmingly voting for Democrats and the overwhelming majority of racists being Republicans you can understand the reluctance.
Voter suppression takes many forms but there is no denying that it has been effective. 2020 will be a close election (in the Electoral College which is all that counts). In 2000 Al Gore won the popular vote by about 500,000 but – according to the Supreme Court in a 5-4 “party line” vote –lost the election. In 2016 Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 3 million but still lost. That is two of the last the last five presidential elections that were both close and the loser of the popular vote won the election.
In 2000 I lived in Pinellas County, Florida. Florida ended up being the disputed state and we will really never know who won it that year. I lived in one of the higher social-economic neighborhoods. I voted in person on Election Day and had no problem other than election workers wearing Bush campaign apparel. Pinellas also had many neighborhoods of color that were considerably less wealth (and red). In those a Sherriff’s department and/or a Florida Highway Patrol car was at most if not all polling places. (Had I asked I’m sure the reason I’d have been given was that they were on hand to provide security. I guess we didn’t need security in my neighborhood because not too many of “those people” lived there.) The reality is that they were discouraging voters from showing up. Keep in mind the Sheriff was a Republican and the Governor was Jeb Bush, brother of the Republican presidential candidate.
Without getting too far into the weeds, the laws/rules about citizens monitoring the polls and challenging voters have been loosened considerably since 2016. Expect Teapublicans to show up at select precincts where they do not live to “ensure the fairness of the elections”.
Who knows what use Trump and Republican governors will find for the coronavirus to create confusion and suppress the vote? While they have proven to be a disaster at actually running governmental units they are great at gumming up the works. I am of the school of thought that 2020 Wisconsin’s primary and State Supreme Court election was just a trial run.
When you add a large pool of voters to the total your interest and therefore turnout percentage should go up. In America it has not. The factor I submit as the major reason is voter suppression.
In a blowout voter suppression gets lost in the shuffle. With the American electorate as polarized as it is the chances of a blowout in the near future is very, very slim. Close elections come down to turnout. Do your part and make every effort to have your vote count.
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