Understanding the history of voter suppression and gerrymandering, and how to advocate for more accountability and transparency from your legislators, with Kwame Akosah and Imara Jones
“Voting has real power. If your vote meant nothing, which is what people who don’t want you to vote constantly tell you, there wouldn’t be so much effort put in to prevent you from doing it.” — Imara Jones
I was so lucky to be able to have Kwame Akosah and Imara Jones on an interview moderated by dear friend Kira-Simon Kennedy about the history of voter suppression, African American disenfranchisement, shifting political dynamics, and what we can do to keep our legislators accountable.
Starting off with 5 things we can all pay attention to:
1) The next primary election: November 6, 2018
Get people registered! All 435 seats in the United States House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 seats in the United States Senate will be contested. 39 state and territorial governorships and numerous other state and local elections will also be contested.
2) The 2020 Census
Redistricting happens after every census, and is a powerful opportunity for partisans and those who want to maintain racial and ethnic power to make it harder for a certain group to elect candidates of their choice.
There are alternatives to how state legislators draw their own districts to benefit them after the census. For example, in California, there are independent commissions that determine what the states look like after the legislators draw the lines. In certain swing states like Virginia and North Carolina, it’s especially important. During the 2010 census, NC’s state legislature turned over and they redrew the lines to make it very difficult for Democrats to ever come back into power.
3) Claims of voter fraud. They are used to justify voter suppression
A method of voter suppression that you’ll see debated in the news is requiring documentary proof of citizenship before someone registers to vote “Imagine doing a voter registration drive at a baseball game and asking people, and them replying ‘sorry I don’t have my birth certificate or my passport on me.’ A study found 30 instances of in-person voter fraud out of 1 billion ballots cast — lower than death by lightning. There are folks who want low income and people of color not to vote.”
4) Reformation of state laws to allow electors to vote independently. Advocate for increased transparency in the electorate selection process
When you vote for the President, it actually says in the fine print that you’re voting for the Electors, who then cast the votes. Electors usually voting along party lines.
- Establishment of the Electoral College by the slave-holding South was always designed to undermine the popular vote “They were always more interested in keeping people in bondage than upholding democratic ideals. That’s been embedded in the constitution since we’ve had it.” — Imara Jones
- When they contact you [to be on the Electoral College], you feel honored. You don’t know anything about your constitutional role so you’re not going to ask questions. There is no process for how this happens. When the Hamilton Electors tried to reach out to these people to get them to vote independently, many of them didn’t even know they could. The Constitution lays out laws but the electors are chosen by the parties in each state. Fun tidbit: Bill Clinton was actually an elector for Hillary this past round. The list of names could come from a fundraising event where someone donated a few dollars. A lot of times they choose people who they expect won’t know their roles, or that they are empowered.
5) All of these racist voter laws are being passed by state legislatures.
The real center of power in NY state is in the Board of Elections, which is one of the most dysfunctional agencies in state government. Everything is still on paper. We can’t get things like automatic voter registration, or a robust online registration system. We should making these issues a serious platform for people who are progressive and want to make change happen in New York State.
More from our guests about their personal motivations, and a bit of history as to what voter rights have to do with why our political parties are the way they are:
“I care about the ideals of America; I think that they are worth fighting for. If we hold up to those ideals, it really is the last best hope for humanity. The problem is that we don’t have a system that actually allows us to achieve those ideals — which actively undermines them.” — Imara Jones
“We’re supposed to have universal suffrage for everyone in this country but there are so many barriers to preventing people on the rolls and casting a vote that counts. One of the the biggest eligibility barriers lie in criminal disenfranchisement laws — that’s 6.1 million people who don’t have the right to vote because of a criminal conviction. 4.7 of them are actually no longer in prison and part of the community paying taxes and raising children, and no one ever talks about it. Voter suppression is sought after because it works: the incarcerated are less likely to be able to vote in the places where their votes matter more.” — Kwame Akosah
Redistricting & gerrymandering
In the U.S. we have geographical representation (some other countries have “associative representation”) in a legislature and at all levels. Every district line has to have an equal population so everyone is represented “equally” in the legislature.
An example of rejiggering the legislative districts that disproportionately reduces the power of voters of color:
A consequence of Selma and the resulting Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a backlash that remapped Southern electoral politics from Democratic to Republican
The African American population in the south was re-enfranchised, and the first time, black women were also given the right to vote. Race was a very compelling piece in the story of the South flipping to Republican: the Voting Rights Act is what you can say attributed to us having the parties the way we do, and why the Democratic party is more pro-women, pro-POC than the Republican party. The Voting Rights Act is also the last provision which allows you to challenge racial gerrymandering.
Voter suppression tactics
Things like poll taxes (pay the state a tax before voting), literacy tests (passing a test before being able to vote), and grandfather clauses (unregistered voters must adhere to new eligibility laws that were harder to meet; basically exempted white population from other eligibility rules because they were more likely to be already registered) have now become modernized forms of the same tactics. One such measure is to require DMV-issued photo IDs with names that matched those found on their voter registration cards.
Andrew Cohen writes in The Atlantic: “If you cannot afford to drive, and thus don’t need a driver’s license, the idea of getting a photo identification is much more daunting. Since you don’t drive, it’s difficult to get to and from a government office to get your new photo identification. Maybe most of your friends and family don’t drive, either. Or maybe you are too old or too ill to get behind the wheel. Or maybe you cannot get time off from your hourly job. Or maybe the cost of getting there, in terms of transportation fees and lost work hours, is prohibitive.”
The only way to combat these tactics now through the legal framework is to prove harm, which means allowing the measures to pass, letting it cause harm, then going to court and protest that it is a harmful law. This is a very long process.