Kai Wright: Hey, this is Kai. On our last show, we introduced you to one of the dozens of students who've gone on hunger strike as a way to illustrate the urgency of the voting rights debate in Congress. They wanted to vote up or down on the Freedom to Vote Act. As of this recording that has not happened, and in fact, a number of them were arrested alongside Faith leaders as they protested peacefully at the Capitol. I'm sure Fox News will shortly be calling them rioters.
Anyway, with this news as backdrop, I want to share a conversation I had back in 2020 with historian Carol Anderson. We talked about her book One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy. Dr. Anderson can walked me through the long history of voter suppression in the United States and of the legislative effort to expand democracy. I think it is useful context for this week's news.
Dr. Anderson, welcome back.
Carol Anderson: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
Kai Wright: I have decades worth of history I want you to walk me through here. [laughter] There's a lot to cover, but before we do that, I'm just curious for you. How did you get started studying this? Why did voting rights and voter suppression become something that was the focus of your work?
Carol Anderson: I am a human rights scholar. I am attracted to the fractured citizenship of African Americans and how that came to be. The first few books really looked at that and then came that 2016 election. The pundits were saying, "Well, Black folks just didn't show up. Well, they just didn't show up because they really weren't feeling Hillary because she's like, oh Hillary."
It enraged me because I knew that this was the first presidential election in 50 years without the protection of the Voting Rights Act. To have a narrative basically of Black pathology, Black folks just didn't show up instead of really looking at the structures and the policies that made that happen, that's how I got here. [chuckles]
Kai Wright: Well, let's talk about how we all got here. We've spent a lot of time on this show of talking about reconstruction and the constitutional amendments that came out of it including the 15th amendment, which to remind everybody says that you can't stop Black men at least from voting. In your book, Dr. Anderson, you detail how Southern States in particular spent the next century after the 15th amendment finding ways to get around it using poll taxes and literacy tests and all the rest of it, to keep black people from voting without naming race or gender for that matter.
I just want to cite a couple of the stats you used to show just how total the success was in this regard. In 1867, 66% of Black adults in Mississippi were registered to vote, 66%. By 1955, just 4.3% of Black adults were registered. From 66% to 4.3%. Then you point out that in Alabama, there were counties by the time we got to the '60s where there were 0% of Black people registered to vote.
I don't know that people appreciate the totality of voter suppression before the Voting Rights Act came about or really even what the law itself set out to do about that. Can you just explain the logic and the function of the Voting Rights Act when it came about in 1965? How did it respond to the numbers that I just gave?
Carol Anderson: Absolutely. The Voting Rights Act was landmarked because it had that pre-clearance provision. What that did was it said you have states that have a history of discriminating against their citizens have to get their voting laws okayed first. What that did is it prevented these states from implementing these racially discriminatory laws, having those laws take effect, having them cauterize the electorate. Having them shut down access to the ballot box so that politicians who are getting elected are getting elected on these truncated narrowed votes instead of by a full vibrant democracy.
What the Voting Rights Act did, was it stepped in and said, "Not today son." It said, "Before you go and change your requirements about what it's going to take to vote, or before you draw a line for your redistricting, before you start annexing these places to begin to diffuse the Black vote in a sea of white voters, before you do any of that mess, you got to come through us."
Kai Wright: The point was it was preventive. It was a really big part of it. That's what you're saying because there had already been in 1957, a law that tried to stop voter suppression and didn't work out because it wasn't preventative enough.
Carol Anderson: It wasn't preventive at all. What it was was it was about litigation. You think about this, you're in Mississippi and your voting rights have been denied. You have to sue and then there's an investigation that's going to take over a year while you are Black and in Mississippi suing a white registrar. Then there's a trial and then the case they would change the registrar, whatever and the case would become moot and you'd have to go back all over again.
Kai Wright: Assuming you survived all that.
Carol Anderson: Assuming you survived. Years of litigation meant that there was no change. That's what makes the Voting Rights Act so landmark is because you have change.
Kai Wright: It worked. This is something I think a lot of people don't also know, just how rapidly it changed democracy in this country. Can you talk about that?
Carol Anderson: Absolutely. In the early 1960s for instance, there were only like 5% of Black Mississippians were registered to vote, two years after the Voting Rights Act. It was almost 60%. Imagine going from 5% to 60%, almost 60% in two years. Wow. You had federal electors who were going in like in South Carolina because South Carolina still wanted to do the literacy test.
The federal electors were like, "No." You began to see a change in South Carolina as you had federally left us there ensuring that the poll workers were not discriminating against Black citizens. That's the change. You started seeing Black elected officials.
Kai Wright: Was it just Black voting? Is there any data that shows what it did to voting overall, and democracy overall?
Carol Anderson: Not that I know of, but I do know that with the time we get to the 75 Reauthorization Act for the Voting Rights Act is that they added a language in there dealing with language discrimination. Part of what you see happening here as a more thorough recognition of the barriers that are put in place in front of American citizens to stop them from voting.
It says that if you are in a county or in a region, an area that has a certain percentage of folks who speak a different language and these American citizens have the right to vote. You need to put your election materials in that language as well. This is how you broaden this democracy and get it vibrant.
Kai Wright: That's over a course of a decade.
Carol Anderson: That's why it was so threatening.
Kai Wright: Well, on the question of threatening, I think another thing I've heard you talk about that I don't think a lot of us appreciate, I didn't appreciate until I read your book is just how rapidly white people turned against civil rights in general once Black people started voting. Can you talk about that?
Carol Anderson: Oh my gosh. We get the Civil Rights Act in 1964, that is about ending discrimination and we get the Voting Rights Act in '65. By '65, '66, you have the majority of whites saying that we're moving too fast on civil rights issues, too fast. This is just trying to redo the mess that happened during reconstruction a century before. A century is too fast but what you also see happening here is that the majority of whites have not voted for a democratic candidate for president since 1964.
Kai Wright: Since that time, since this law.
Carol Anderson: Yes.
Kai Wright: Your previous book is called White Rage and you talk there in other places about the idea that we understand white rage that phrases you as you use it as only in the realm of physical violence, but that's not only or even the primary place that it shows up in American life.
Carol Anderson: No. White Rage really is about the bureaucratic violence. The ways that policies and judicial decisions and laws and executive orders come down to undermine African Americans access to their citizenship rights. Because it isn't that kind of physical violence, we often don't see it. You'd think about it, it took the cataclysm on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the filming of Bloody Sunday that's cutting into nightly news programs to have people in America go, "Wait a minute, they're getting beaten because they're just trying to vote?"
Now that it takes seeing visual violence to understand the depth of what literacy test can do. To understand the depth of what poll taxes can do. To understand the depth of what good character clauses can do. That's white rage. The policies and that's where we are, is so much today the kinds of policies that we don't see the physical death, but we are experiencing the civic death.
Kai Wright: Well, let me jump ahead to 1988 in our story of voting. Despite the white rage backlash democracy does, in fact, expand, and as we've talked about but then the presidential election of 1988 comes along. What happened in that election in terms of turnout?
Carol Anderson: Oh, that turnout was so low. That was the Bush one H. W. and Dukakis and that turnout was, I think the lowest it had been since 1924 or something like that. It's just like, "Uh." There was this kind of [unintelligible 00:11:07] shaggy moment of like, "Oh my gosh, people aren't turning out." You saw this movement, particularly of the Democrats to figure out how do we expand voter registration because registration, if voter registration is opaque, how do you get registered to vote?
If the place where you go is only open when you're at work, all of these barriers that were there and so they started crafting legislation, what would become the National Voter Registration Act to open up access to voter registration with the Motor Voter Law.
Kai Wright: What did it do? I think a lot of people might know the Motor Voter Law, at least people of my generation are familiar with that phrase. What was the Motor Voter Law because it's another huge deal in the story of democracy in the United States.
Carol Anderson: Yes, and what the motor voter law did was it said that instead of having to go to the board of elections to register to vote. When you're getting your driver's license or when you're getting your license plate, going to the department of motor vehicles provides another space where you can register to vote. Wow, that opened up access. Registration went up by over a million new potential voters, as I recall at that time. Yes, this is no small thing, but there was a poison pill in that thing, right?
Kai Wright: Well, let's take a little break and we're going to come back and talk about that poison pill that was buried in this otherwise successful law and how we're still swallowing it now.
Kai Wright: We're listening to a conversation I had with historian, Carol Anderson, back in 2020. She's laying out the history of voter suppression that she traces in her book, One Person, No Vote. Before the break, she told me about the 1988 Motor Voter Act, which was written to expand access to voter registration, but which also contained a poison pill that we are still living with today. What language was inserted in there that became a problem and why was it there?
Carol Anderson: The Republicans insisted as they knew that this was really going to expand the electorate. They insisted on what they call voter maintenance and voter maintenance meant that the secretaries of state had to go through and call their list of, A, people who had died naturally, B, people who had moved out of the district or out of the state, but there was a, C, that said you cannot remove people from the voter rules simply because they haven't voted and that C got ignored and the Supreme court allowed it to happen.
Kai Wright: There it is, it sits there until we get to 2000. People hear about the 2000 election and they immediately think about Bush V. Gore, but in terms of voter suppression, there was a whole another election, the Missouri Senate race that became really important indeed. The best you can remember, can you give it, what happened in that race that now really changed history of voting?
Carol Anderson: Yes, so we had this election because again, I was in Missouri at the time. We had this election where the governor Mel Carnahan was actually, he had died, he had been killed in a plane crash, but his name was on the ballot because he died too close to it, to the elections and John Ashcroft was his Republican opponent. In this election, the St. Louis board of elections had illegally removed purged, almost 50,000 voters from the roles and these nearly 50,000 folks didn't know it.
They show up at the polls and their names are nowhere on the books. They get sent down to the board of elections downtown, hours go by and the polls are getting ready to close so the Democrats sue. Now the Republicans are upset because they're saying, "They're going to try to steal the election. They're trying to steal the election," but the Democrats are suing because people have been illegally purged from the roles and were denied the right to vote.
The judge agreed and said, "The polls can stay open for three more hours." Republicans came in right behind with the language of voter fraud, stealing the election and that judge shut down the polls within 45 minutes. The polls closed at 7:45 PM. From there Senator Kit Bond, US Senator Kit Bond began really riding that hobby horse of massive rampant voter fraud.
Kai Wright: This is really the introduction of this idea into our political lexicon, right? It's so familiar now but it was after that election in the Bush administration and with Republicans and Senate that we first started really hearing this term voter fraud, voter fraud, voter fraud. I think something I've heard you point out is that the language of it was notable at the time that this idea of "stealing elections" in urban areas that were full of people of color.
Carol Anderson: Yes, they kept talking about this is what's happening in St. Louis. This is what's happening in Cleveland and in Philadelphia. You get this image of urban, Black, criminals, stealing, theft from good, honest, hard-working Americans, which as we know, is coded as white. The problem with that narrative, there's so many problems, but one with the narrative of massive rampant voter fraud in the cities is that it didn't exist. It just didn't exist.
Kit Bond said that there were dogs on the roads voting. There were dead people on the roads voting and all of these people were using these vacant lot addresses to come back and vote multiple times using a different address and the St. Louis post-dispatch, the local newspaper did a beautiful investigation of all of those charges and found that they didn't hold water. There was a dog on the rolls, Ritzy Mekler, right?
Kai Wright: he gets a shout out.
Carol Anderson: Yes, Ritzy gets a shout-out, but Ritzy, Norin, Tintin nor Lacie nor Faido voted in that election.
Kai Wright: This stuck despite the absurdity of the facts that you're laying out, Dr. Anderson, because this is literally the conversation in this election right now that there's going to be a fraud. How did this manage to stick for now 20 years, I guess?
Carol Anderson: I think it stuck because, one, it played to a larger vein in American society that cities are corrupt, that cities are where bad things happen. That cities that have large segments of minority populations you can expect that crime is just around the corner and you had an incredible PR campaign where there in Congress testifying and using the language of voter fraud, voter fraud, voter fraud.
If you say a lie enough times and you put it in the garb of respectability of US senators, of big-time lawyers and you have the media that see this flashing headline of voter fraud, voter fraud, and you don't do the interrogation fully. Wow, and it just stuck.
Kai Wright: I want to jump ahead and ask you Dr. Anderson, about 2008. There's this thing, I feel like amongst Black people when we start talking about voting, just about where were you when you went to vote in 2008 for Obama's first election? Where were you in 2008? Do you have a memory of that?
Carol Anderson: What I remember is I was in Missouri at the time, because I taught at the university of Missouri at the time and I remember seeing the tallies come through and I remember looking up to the heavens and saying, "Mommy, can you believe?" Wow.
Kai Wright: I hate to pivot from something so sweet but you've also pointed out that this moment is the next big moment in white rage in terms of how it impacted our voting. Can you say a bit about that you feel like that it was in the immediate wake of Barack Obama's election that we saw just a real resurgence in voter suppression.
Carol Anderson: Oh, absolutely. We hear this narrative that how racist can America be because we put a Black man in the White House. That talks about how racist because white voters overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama but as I mentioned earlier that's not correct because the majority of white voters have not voted for a democratic candidate for president since 1964.
What Obama had was a sizable number of whites not the majority but he had an incredible ground game and that brought millions upon millions of new voters to the polls. They were overwhelmingly African American, Hispanic, Asian American, young and the poor. That combination would become the hit list for voters suppression.
Kai Wright: The bill designed to respond to that voter suppression. The one that's currently unable to get a vote in the Senate or perversion of it anyway. It was already on the table back when I had this conversation with Carol Anderson. When I asked her about solutions, about how to deal with all of this, she just pointed to that bill but she said something else which others have echoed since. She said, "Even if Congress passes this law, there's still another problem. The Supreme court".
Carol Anderson: It reminds me of the courts after reconstruction that got at the 14th and the 15th amendment as well as the Force Act and the Enforcement Acts and said that the 13th amendments badges of servitude did not apply to Jim Crow segregation. That's what their setting up as a reconstruction court to undo and to stop progressive legislation.
Kai Wright: That's a Chilling idea.
Carol Anderson: I just leave it with this Paul Weyrich who was the co-founder of The Heritage Foundation. He said, "I don't want everybody to vote because quite candidly our leverage goes up as the voting populous goes down." As our voting populous is going up it's time to weaken that leverage.
Kai Wright: Dr. Carol Anderson is author of One person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy among other books. Thanks for joining us Dr. Anderson
Carol Anderson: Thank you so much, Kai.
Kai Wright: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Mixing of this episode by Jared Paul. Our team also includes Emily Botin, Regina de, Karen Frillmann and Kousha Navidar. I'm Kai Wright. Keep in touch with me on Twitter @Kai_Wright and I hope you'll join us on Sunday 6:00 PM Eastern stream the live show @wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Talk to you then.
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