“There must be change. There will be change. For to deny a person the right to exercise his political freedom at the polls is no less a dastardly act as to deny a Christian the right to petition God in prayer.” — Martin Luther King Jr., urging passage of the Voting Rights Act, June 19, 1965.
“I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” — Conservative activist Paul Weyrich, Remarks to the Religious Roundtable, 1980.
On June 19, 1965, when the Voting Rights Act that had been passed in the Senate was bottled up in the House of Representatives, Martin Luther King Jr. penned an editorial in the New York Amsterdam News, urging prompt passage of the bill. The editorial, titled “Let My People Vote” (and reproduced in full two years ago in The Atlantic), noted one southern county after another where only a tiny fraction of voting-age African-Americans was registered to vote. “These counties,” Dr. King wrote, “are not an exception but rather the rule in an area where Negro disfranchisement is the main instrument for perpetuating racial injustice.” The massive efforts of civil rights organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to register blacks to vote, along with “a strong voting rights bill,” would, Dr. King prophesied, finally succeed in “breaking the shackles which so long have crippled the Negro’s advancement in the South.” He concluded, “Our battle cry is ‘Let My People Vote.’”
The struggle to end racist obstacles to African-Americans’ right to vote was one of the iconic achievements of the civil rights movement. Its deeper aim was to knock down the central pillar and last line of defense of the post-Civil War Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised freed black slaves and so reconstituted a sweeping system of racial segregation and subjugation. King and his colleagues in the civil rights movement correctly saw the right to vote as the indispensable fulcrum of change. Without it, the promise of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would only be faintly realized in the American south and beyond.
Yet 55 years after King penned his famous plea, African-Americans and other people of color too often struggle all over again to exercise their democratic right to cast a ballot. As the Brennan Center for Justice and the Center for American Progress have documented, the past decade has seen a swelling cascade of targeted efforts to suppress the vote of racial minorities, wrapped in professions of innocent intent to save money or preclude voter fraud. None of these efforts are as blatant as the old poll tax of the Jim Crow South. But in making it more difficult to register to vote; in purging from the voter register people who haven’t voted recently, and doing so especially in minority districts; in closing polling stations and requiring voters to wait in long lines, again especially in minority districts; and in requiring government-issued IDs to vote, when it is known that people of color are less likely to have these, officials are acting with the clear intent of discouraging racial minorities from voting.
Up until 2013, states and localities with a history of racial discrimination in voting had to “pre-clear” any changes to their voting rules with the Department of Justice. This provision enabled the Justice Department to block “many restrictions that would have made it more difficult for Black and brown people to participate and vote.” But a 2013 Supreme Court ruling nullified the pre-clearance requirement, opening the door to the escalating abuses we are now seeing. In one of the most egregious instances in 2018, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, blocked 53,000 voter registration applications because their names didn’t exactly match the records in state databases. It just so happened that 70 percent of the names blocked were African-American; a total of 80 percent were people of color; and Kemp was administering the very election in which he was contesting for the office of Governor. He won by 55,000 votes.
The fact that Kemp was a Republican was no coincidence. Apart from partisan gerrymandering of electoral districts—which both parties have historically practiced, but which, as I have shown elsewhere, now disproportionately benefits Republicans—all efforts at voter suppression today are the work of Republican officeholders. In resisting reforms to make it easier to register and to vote, and in erecting new barriers to exercising the right to vote, a growing segment of the Republican Party seems to be following the cynical political logic of the late conservative activist Paul Weyrich: that Republican electoral prospects will improve by narrowing, not widening, the electorate.
At least two presumptions appear to drive this calculus. First, because of their diminished access to economic resources, information, and transportation, lower-income people—who are disproportionately people of color, and disproportionately likely to vote Democratic—face greater natural obstacles to voting. So even a modest (and slightly confusing) increase in barriers will disproportionately fall upon the economically marginalized. And second, the electorate is becoming increasingly racially diverse. So Republicans must either win over a greater share of the racial minority vote or else suppress it, while maximizing the party’s vote share among the non-Hispanic white majority. But that majority is steadily declining and now constitutes only 60 percent of the American population. So embracing the second strategy encourages a third one as well: Limiting immigration in order to preserve the existing white majority. Instead of opting for the future—which will be won by the countries that attract the best talent and assimilate the greatest diversity—Donald Trump’s Republican Party is closing borders and doubling down on its white racial base. Trump fared worse among minority voters in 2016 than any major party nominee in decades. While his eight percent share of the black vote was only slightly less than that of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, his campaign—with its vulgar hostility to immigration and white supremacist dog whistles and enthusiasts—captured a much lower share of the Hispanic vote than either Reagan or Bush (28 percent compared to about 35 percent). In office, previous Republican presidents tried to reach out to black interests. But Trump as President has been uniquely dismissive of African-Americans and appallingly indulgent of white supremacists.
If many Republican officeholders are repelled by Trump’s rhetoric and conduct, few have articulated it publicly. And the party has a deeper, more structural problem. At the level of legislative representation, it remains—in striking contrast to the Democratic Party—overwhelmingly white. Of the 54 African-Americans elected to the House in 2018, 53 were Democrats and one a Republican (Will Hurd, who has announced he is not running for re-election). African-Americans now account for 22 percent of House Democrats but only half a percent of House Republicans. Of the five Latino senators, three are Republicans, two are Democrats. But among the 43 voting members of the House, 35 are Democrats and only eight are Republicans. Of the 20 Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islanders in Congress, 16 of the 17 House members and all three Senators are Democrats. Put differently, Democrats account for 90 percent of the members of Congress who are racial minorities. And racial minorities comprise 44 percent of Democrats on Capitol Hill but only 6 percent of Republicans.
The story is largely the same in the state capitols. African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but only 9 percent of state legislators; Hispanics are 17 percent of the population but only 5 percent of state legislators. And again, there is a huge gap between the parties. Racial minorities (including Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent), account for one of every three Democratic state legislators but only 5 percent of Republicans.
In short, the Democratic Party looks like today’s America while the Republican Party looks close to being a party of and for whites. Unless the Republican Party diversifies—recruiting more minority candidates and crafting issue-based appeals to blacks, Hispanics, and other racial and ethnic minorities—it risks becoming a permanent minority party. This is likely what Donald Trump really meant when he declared that if the United States switched to all-mail voting, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Over half a century ago, African-Americans and their civil rights allies from all races marched and petitioned and bled and died to ensure the right to vote for all Americans. It was only when that right was achieved, with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that the United States became a full democracy. No one imagines that voting alone will sweep away the multifold, pervasive, and deeply embedded problems of racial injustice in this country. But as Dr. King and his colleagues understood, the ballot box is the Archimedean lever for securing all other rights in a democracy. The events of the past two weeks remind us that this right is sacred and non-negotiable. It’s time to stop playing partisan and legalistic games, fully restore the Voting Rights Act (as the House voted to do last December), and once again put a full stop to the ugly scourge of voter suppression in America.