Race and voting rights are inextricably linked

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Republicans have welcomed findings from political science that their voter ID laws have not cratered black turnout. This, they claim, is proof of their party’s racial innocence. Let’s examine this hypothesis a bit. That doesn’t hold up given that in the state with the most extreme Republican anti-vote activity, which is North Carolina, GOP lawmakers asked for racial data when crafting of the so-called monster voting law. But maybe that’s not enough, and we’ll have to dust off the old Critical Race Theory machine. According to the real CRT, a law can be racist even if its drafting was not tainted with strictly racist intention. Given the history of this country, this analysis fully applies to the question of who can vote.

Interestingly, the state of North Carolina was born into a biracial male-only voting system. Largely due to an oversight by its slave-holding founders, North Carolina’s constitution of 1776 allowed free men of color to vote in state elections. This relative liberalism ceased to operate three generations later with the rise of so-called Jacksonian democracy. In state after state across the growing nation, universal suffrage for white men coincided with the restriction of voting rights for the handful of free black men who had once been able to exercise the right to vote. White male suffrage meant suffrage for white males only. The little bits of biracial democracy were stripped away when America committed to a strictly limited, flat republic for the country’s white men.

This inextricable link between the vote and race would manifest with predictable power in an era of Southern reconstruction and redemption. Led by Mississippi, southern states passed literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses to exclude male descendants of slaves from the southern white republic. The grandfather clauses were particularly important, as they allowed illiterate white men to vote even if they were unlikely to pass a literacy test. Southern white supremacists have a backup plan in place in case their anti-black schemes should unwittingly catch white men in the spider’s nest.

In the South, opposition to women’s suffrage was directly linked to fears of a multiracial democracy. While a decent number of white men agreed with their wives and sisters’ vote, the vast majority of the all-white male electorate was adamantly opposed to black suffrage, regardless of their sex. Opponents of women’s suffrage have used white supremacy scare propaganda to scare southern white men into rejecting the 19th Amendment. North Carolina’s 1924 gubernatorial race was largely decided on these grounds, with suffragist O. Max Gardner losing the election to former Red Shirt leader Cameron Morrison because the former supported women’s suffrage. , and the second succeeded in marrying women’s suffrage with African-American suffrage in the sectarian spirit of the electorate.

Race was an active variable in debates about suffrage and democracy throughout the late 20th century. Southern whites took just three years to switch presidential loyalties after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. The North Carolina experience, as is so often the case, has been instructive as to broader regional trends. The state had opted for LBJ in 1964, but turned harshly on Richard Nixon and ultra-segregationist George Wallace in the 1968 election. It only takes a tiny drop of gray matter to discern why a Democratic stronghold of longtime suddenly switched to the Republican Party. , and would remain in the red column for all but two presidential elections of the next 52 years.

This is the story, and the story is not over. The racially reinvented Southern Republican Party became a party firmly committed to limiting black political power. Voting rights are a central part of the GOP’s plan to instantiate a durable conservative majority. North Carolina Republicans have obsessively sought to impose restrictions on the franchise, no matter how many times the courts have rebuffed their efforts. In Georgia, Republicans passed a bill so broad that it bars suffrage activists from handing out bottled water to voters. Across the country, black people have to wait twice as long to vote as white people. America, unfortunately, remains a nation torn between its founding aspirations and its continuing reality. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but its curvature may remain a gentle slope for decades and decades to come.

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