The Republicans not the Russians are the biggest threat to American democracy

Planned closure of polling stations is latest in long and shameful tradition of African-American voter suppression.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Forget Robert Mueller and Russiagate. The biggest threat to American democracy, and to the legitimacy of US elections, comes not from Kremlin hackers but from Republican Party politicians.

Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at Randolph County in Georgia. Population: 7,000. Sixty-one per cent black; 31 per cent poor. Ahead of a tight gubernatorial election in November, in which the Democrats have nominated a black populist named Stacey Abrams, local GOP election officials are planning on closing seven of Randolph County’s nine polling stations.

Yes, all but two of them! How is this not a political, legal and moral scandal of the highest order? It is a brazen attempt at voter suppression. In a scathing letter to the Randolph County Board of Elections and Registration on 14 August, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) slammed the proposal to shutter three-quarters of the county’s polling stations as “discriminatory”, “suspicious”, “unjustifiable” and a “violation” of both the Voting Rights Act and the US constitution. 

The ACLU noted that “the eliminated polling place with the highest registered voter population, Cuthbert Middle School, serves a 96.7 per cent black population” which would lead “a reasonable observer to wonder whether the real motive behind these closures is indeed to make it harder for African-Americans to cast a ballot”.

“There is nothing worse in a democracy than preventing people from voting,” Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, tells me. “That’s what’s been going on in the past few elections.”

How did this happen? Well, the United States has a long and shameful history of repressing and disenfranchising African-American communities. However, contemporary efforts at voter suppression date from November 2000, when George W Bush’s razor-thin victory over Al Gore in the key swing state of Florida gained him the White House. Some black voters in the Sunshine State were purged from the electoral rolls ahead of election day; others were prevented from reaching polling stations by police roadblocks. A study by the US Commission on Civil Rights later found that the “disenfranchisement of Florida’s voters fell most harshly on the shoulders of African-American voters” with black voters “nearly ten times more likely than white voters to have their ballots rejected” in 2000.

It was a light-bulb moment for Republicans, who realised that they could win elections by preventing people from voting in them – specifically, people of colour.

In 2010, after the GOP gained a record 680 state legislative seats and took control of 26 state legislatures, its voter suppression efforts intensified. Victorious Republican politicians set about trying to undermine Barack Obama’s election-winning coalition of progressive whites and African-Americans by disenfranchising the latter.

Citing the imaginary problem of “voter fraud”, more than a dozen states passed a variety of laws, ranging from stringent photo ID requirements, to restricting early voting, to denying the vote to anyone convicted of a felony, even after completing their sentence. All of these laws disproportionately affected poorer, non-white voters.

In 2013, conservatives on the Supreme Court voted to gut a crucial section of the Voting Rights Act that required (mostly Southern) states with a history of discrimination to request federal approval before making changes to their voting laws. The court did so on the spurious grounds that “blatant” or “widespread” racial discrimination in elections was a thing of the past.

If only. In 2016, a federal court accused Republican politicians in North Carolina of targeting African-American voters “with almost surgical precision” with a voter ID law. In 2017, another federal court ruled that GOP legislators in Texas had passed a voter ID law with “discriminatory intent” towards black and Hispanic voters (in the Lone Star State, gun licences can be used as identification for voting, but student IDs can’t). Meanwhile, thanks to laws that disenfranchise convicted felons for life, one in 13 black adults in the United States now lacks a vote, compared to one in 56 white adults. In Florida, a whopping 23 per cent of the African-American community is disenfranchised.

This is a travesty. Americans like to lecture the rest of the world on the importance of voting and elections. Perhaps they should start looking closer to home. How can the US, as Ari Berman points out, be considered “a functioning democracy as long as voter suppression is running rampant”? “We pay lip service to the importance of voting,” he tells me, “but not to voting itself.”

And if Donald Trump’s shock victory doesn’t force the Democrats – and the media – to take the issue of voter suppression more seriously, then nothing will. It was “a major contributing factor” to Trump’s narrow win in November 2016, argues Berman, because “it is clear that voter suppression reduced votes for Hillary Clinton in a number of key states”.

Take Wisconsin. A September 2017 study by the University of Wisconsin found between 17,000 and 23,000 people, a disproportionate number of whom were black, were either “deterred” or “prevented” from voting by the state’s strict voter ID law. Trump won Wisconsin by 22,748 votes. For the Republican Party, then, voter suppression is a winning strategy.

To be clear: this is a war against black and Hispanic voters and, by extension, against democracy. Who needs the Russians to subvert US elections when the Republicans are already doing such a fine job of it? 

Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor. He is based in Washington, DC

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?