PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award Finalist, Longlisted for the National Book Award
Best Books of the YearWashington Post, Boston Globe, NPR, Bustle, NYPL
From the award-winning, NYT bestselling author of White Rage, the startlingand timelyhistory of voter suppression in America, with a foreword by Senator Dick Durbin, now with a new afterword by the author.
In her New York Times bestseller White Rage, Carol Anderson laid bare an insidious history of policies that have systematically impeded black progress in America, from 1865 to our combustible present. With One Person, No Vote, she chronicles a related history: the rollbacks to African American participation in the vote since the 2013 Supreme Court decision that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Known as the Shelby ruling, this decision effectively allowed districts with a demonstrated history of racial discrimination to change voting requirements without approval from the Department of Justice.
Focusing on the aftermath of Shelby, Anderson follows the astonishing story of government-dictated racial discrimination unfolding before our very eyes as more and more states adopt voter suppression laws. In gripping, enlightening detail she explains how voter suppression works, from photo ID requirements to gerrymandering to poll closures. In a powerful new afterword, she examines the repercussions of the 2018 midterm elections. And with vivid characters, she explores the resistance: the organizing, activism, and court battles to restore the basic right to vote to all Americans.
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A History of Disfranchisement
It was a mystery worthy of Raymond Chandler. On November 8, 2016, African Americans did not show up. It was like a day of absence. African Americans had virtually boycotted the election because they "simply saw no affirmative reason to vote for Hillary," as one reporter explained, before adding, with a hint of an old refrain, that "some saw her as corrupt." Another journalist concluded that because Clinton lacked the ability, charisma, or magic to keep Barack Obama's coalition together, "African-American, Latino and younger voters failed to show up at the polls." As proof of blacks' coolness toward her, journalists pointed to the much greater turnout for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
It is true that, nationwide, black voter turnout had dropped by 7 percent overall. Moreover, less than half of Hispanic and Asian American voters came to the polls. This was, without question, a sea change. The tide of African American, Hispanic, and Asian voters that had previously carried Barack Obama into the White House and kept him there had now visibly ebbed. Journalist Ari Berman called it the most underreported story of the 2016 campaign. But it's more than that. The disappearing minority voter is the campaign's most misunderstood story.
One Person, No Vote seeks to change that. Minority voters did not just refuse to show up; Republican legislatures and governors systematically blocked African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans from the polls. Pushed by both the impending demographic collapse of the Republican Party, whose overwhelmingly white constituency is becoming an ever smaller share of the electorate, and the GOP's extremist inability to craft policies that speak to an increasingly diverse nation, the Republicans opted to disfranchise rather than reform. The GOP, therefore, enacted a range of undemocratic and desperate measures to block the access of African American, Latino, and other minority voters to the ballot box. Using a series of voter suppression tactics, the GOP harassed, obstructed, frustrated, and purged American citizens from having a say in their own democracy. The devices the Republicans used are variations on a theme going back more than 150 years. They target the socioeconomic characteristics of a people (poverty, lack of mobility, illiteracy, etc.) and then soak the new laws in "racially neutral justifications — such as administrative efficiency" or "fiscal responsibility" — to cover the discriminatory intent. Republican lawmakers then act aggrieved, shocked, and wounded that anyone would question their stated purpose for excluding millions of American citizens from the ballot box.
The millions of votes and voters that disappeared behind a firewall of hate and partisan politics was a long time in the making. The decisions to purposely disfranchise African Americans, in particular, can be best understood by going back to the close of the Civil War. As a southerner explained, "Many Texans refused to accept the fact that the Negro was 'free and equal,' and stopped at nothing to prevent him from enjoying civic and political rights." After Reconstruction, the plan was to take years of state-sponsored "trickery and fraud" and transform those schemes into laws that would keep blacks away from the voting booth, disfranchise as many as possible, and, most important, ensure that no African American would ever assume real political power again.
The last point resonated. Reconstruction had brought a number of blacks into government. And despite their helping to craft "the laws relative to finance, the building of penal and charitable institutions, and, greatest of all, the establishment of the public school system," the myth of incompetent, disastrous "black rule" dominated. Or, as one newspaper editor summarized it: "No negro is fit to make laws for white people." Of course, the white lawmakers couldn't be that blatant about their plans to disfranchise; there was, after all, that pesky Constitution to contend with, not to mention the Fifteenth Amendment covering the right to vote with its language barring discrimination "on account of race." But, undaunted, they devised ways to meet the letter of the law while doing an absolute slash-and-burn through its spirit.
That became most apparent in 1890 when the Magnolia State passed the Mississippi Plan, a dizzying array of poll taxes, literacy tests, understanding clauses, newfangled voter registration rules, and "good character" clauses — all intentionally racially discriminatory but dressed up in the genteel garb of bringing "integrity" to the voting booth. This feigned legal innocence was legislative evil genius.
Virginia representative Carter Glass, like so many others, swooned at the thought of bringing the Mississippi Plan to his own state, especially after he saw how well it had worked. He rushed to champion a bill in the legislature that would "eliminate the darkey as a political factor ... in less than five years." Glass, whom President Franklin Roosevelt would one day describe as an "unreconstructed rebel," planned not to "deprive a single white man of the ballot, but [to] inevitably cut from the existing electorate four-fifths of the Negro voters" in Virginia.
One delegate questioned him: "Will it not be done by fraud and discrimination?"
"By fraud, no. By discrimination, yes," Glass retorted. "Discrimination! Why, that is precisely what we propose ... to discriminate to the very extremity ... permissible ... under the ... the Federal Constitution, with a view to the elimination of every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate."
The determination to wipe out the black vote ensnared whites as well, however. Though, for many of those in power, that was just fine. One Mississippi politician remarked that his state had to disfranchise "the ignorant and vicious white," too, so that the electorate was "confined to those, and to those alone, who are qualified by intelligence and character for the proper and patriotic exercise of this great franchise." The resulting "voter mortality rate" was staggering. Throughout the South after the widespread adoption of the Mississippi Plan, voter turnout plummeted to less than half of age-eligible whites, after it had peaked in 1896 at 79.6 percent. In Texas, for example, only 27 percent of age-eligible whites voted in the 1956 election (the national rate was 60 percent). The decline was even more dramatic in the Magnolia State. In the late nineteenth century, Mississippi's voter turnout was close to 70 percent; "by the early twentieth century it scraped near 15 percent."
While there was a steady erosion of white voters, the collapse of black voter turnout was precipitous. In Louisiana, where "more than 130,000 blacks had been registered to vote in 1896, the figure dropped to a bleak 1,342 by 1904." African American registered voters in Alabama plunged from 180,000 to fewer than 3,000 in just three years. As historian C. Vann Woodward concluded, "The restrictions imposed by these devices [in the Mississippi Plan] were enormously effective in decimating the Negro vote." Indeed, by 1940, shortly before the United States entered the war against the Nazis, only 3 percent of age-eligible blacks were registered to vote in the South.
That the states arranged to achieve this remarkable, systematic denial of the vote, while staying within the bounds of the Fifteenth Amendment, is a testament to the warped brilliance of the Mississippi Plan. Senator Theodore Bilbo (D-MS), one of the most virulent racists to grace the halls of Congress, boasted of the chicanery nearly half a century later. "What keeps 'em [blacks] from voting is section 244 of the [Mississippi] Constitution of 1890 ... It says that a man to register must be able to read and explain the Constitution or explain the Constitution when read to him." Mississippi, the senator bragged, "then wrote a constitution that damn few white men and no niggers at all can explain."
Bilbo was pointing to the power of the literacy test and understanding clause, which were tailor-made for societies that systematically refused to educate millions of their citizens and ensured that the bulk of the population remained functionally illiterate. By 1940, more than half of all African American adults in Mississippi had fewer than five years of formal education; almost 12 percent had no schooling whatsoever. The figures were even more dismal in South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, and Alabama. Deliberate under-funding of black schools was critical to the literacy test's disfranchising success. During World War II, for example, Louisiana spent almost four times as much per capita on white elementary schoolchildren as on African American students. Amite County in Mississippi scraped together $3.51 per black child but nearly ten times that amount to educate its white students. In addition, for most of the twentieth century, many Jim Crow school systems did not have high schools for African Americans. That set the stage for states such as Alabama — where more than 54 percent of black adults had fewer than five years of formal education — to require those who came through resource-deprived school systems and who wanted to register to vote to wrangle with the intricacies of constitutional law.
The process was, by design, simultaneously mundane and pernicious. At the registrar's office, while whites might have had a one-sentence section of the Alabama or U.S. Constitution as their litmus test for worthiness to vote, African Americans would get difficult, complex passages in order to prove their literacy, and then they would have to interpret that legal treatise to gauge how well they could actually understand what they had just read. This combination of literacy tests and understanding clauses was designed to thwart blacks' voting rights as they confronted a passage such as this:
SECTION 260: The income arising from the sixteenth section trust fund, the surplus revenue fund, until it is called for by the United States government, and the funds enumerated in sections 257 and 258 of this Constitution, together with a special annual tax of thirty cents on each one hundred dollars of taxable property in this state, which the legislature shall levy, shall be applied to the support and maintenance of the public schools, and it shall be the duty of the legislature to increase the public school fund from time to time as the necessity therefor and the condition of the treasury and the resources of the state may justify; provided, that nothing herein contained shall be so construed as to authorize the legislature to levy in any one year a greater rate of state taxation for all purposes, including schools, than sixty-five cents on each one hundred dollars' worth of taxable property; and provided further, that nothing herein contained shall prevent the legislature from first providing for the payment of the bonded indebtedness of the state and interest thereon out of all the revenue of the state.
And the registrar's decision on whether the would-be voter passed through this maze of legal gobbledygook was final. Non-appealable.
Black coal miner Leon Alexander knew this firsthand. He recalled the moment, shortly after World War II, when he tried to register to vote in Alabama. He stood there at the counter waiting and waiting while the registrar made a big show of deliberately ignoring him. Finally, when whites came into the office, the registrar greeted them, provided the paperwork, and promptly registered them to vote. Alexander nevertheless remained standing there, refusing to leave. Irritated, the registrar finally asked, "What you want boy?"
"I wants to register to vote," the coal miner replied.
The registrar got the form and took it over to Alexander, knowing perfectly well what the final result would be before the pen had even scratched the paper. The coal miner went through the literacy test writing, and writing, and writing. The moment he was done, without even reviewing the sheet, the registrar took Alexander's registration, "balled it up and threw it in the wastebasket."
"You disqualified," he said. "You didn't answer the question."
In the end, it took the intervention of three white officials in the local United Mine Workers union, who had to get Governor Jim Folsom involved, before Alexander was finally registered to vote. And even then, as the coal miner recalled, it was the registrar who got the last laugh. Alexander may have now been a registered voter, but there was one small problem: "They didn't put me on the voting list!" His name never made it onto the official rolls; therefore, he couldn't vote after all. Looking back, Alexander recalled, "this guy had no intention of registering [me], not only no intention of registering me, he had no intention of registering any black to vote."
Despite the fact that this scene played out over and over in registrars' offices across the South — where a registrar in Mississippi could even ask African Americans, "How many bubbles in a bar of soap?" — the law itself was just race-neutral enough to withstand judicial scrutiny. Not only did literacy tests appear nondiscriminatory; they also carried the aura of plausibility. Voters, everyone could agree, ought to be able to understand their state's laws. Yet when that device was made operational, it had nothing to do with the law, of course, nothing to do with an engaged citizenry, and precisely everything to do with eliminating as many age-eligible African Americans from the voter rolls as possible. Eighty percent was Carter Glass's goal. But the actual numbers were even more brutal. By 1953 in the Deep South, "eleven counties where the black population equaled or exceeded that of whites" had only 1.3 percent of all eligible blacks registered to vote. Two counties had no African American voters at all.
And then there was the poll tax, which all eleven states of the former Confederacy had adopted. Initially, after the Civil War, the poll tax "was intended not so much to disenfranchise the Negro as to place him again under the white man's domination, since failure to pay the tax was made prima facie evidence of vagrancy," which was the catchall term to criminalize, jail, and auction off African Americans. The "Negro who desired to stay off the chain gang was ... forced to place himself under the protection of a white man who would pay the tax for him." It was only years later, during the rise of Jim Crow, that the deliberate intent to choke off the black vote came into play when the states required all age-eligible males to pay an annual fee in order to vote. Its proponents wielded the seemingly rational arguments that it costs money to hold elections and that extra funds were necessary to meet the needs of democracy. Moreover, they said the poll tax simply provided additional revenue for public schools. As a revenue producer, it was "a flop," however; Arkansas, for example, raised "only 5 percent of [its] total school budget by the poll tax, a tax that [kept] a good 80 percent of [the state's] adult citizens from voting." But to many of the poll tax's proponents, the high "voter mortality rate" proved how important it was for vetting and weeding out those unworthy of democracy.
"Any person unwilling to pay a small fee in order to enjoy such a precious privilege did not deserve the franchise," its advocates proclaimed. Behind the veil of fiscal and patriotic duty, however, was the full understanding that without the poll tax, "Negroes would again be an important factor in southern politics." One man in Arkansas put it succinctly enough: "Do you want to see niggers in the state capital with their feet on the desk?"
The power of the poll tax derived from several key components. First were the arcane rules about when and where to even pay the tax. The "procedures," C. Vann Woodward observed, were "artfully devised to discourage payment." And, as it was law enforcement that collected the poll tax, the intimidation factor was very real in many locales. Sheriffs, notorious in the black community for their racism and brutality, were now the gatekeepers to the franchise. In Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, for example, "where most whites but few Negroes had registered to vote," the sheriff admitted "that he instructed his deputies to require all persons paying poll taxes for the first time to apply to him personally." There was another built-in obstacle, as well. In most states, the tax was due months before the election. One man noted that "paying a poll tax in February to vote in November is to most folks in Texas like buying a ticket to a show nine months ahead of time, and before you know who's playing or really what the thing is all about. It is easy to forget to do, too."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "One Person, No Vote"
Copyright © 2018 Carol Anderson.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Senator Dick Durbin xiii
1 A History of Disfranchisement 1
2 Voter ID 44
3 Voter Roll Purge 72
4 Rigging the Rules 96
5 The Resistance 121
Conclusion. At the Crossroads of Half Slave, Half Free 149
Afterword. "We Are Going to Warrior Up" 159