How America is returning to the Jim Crow era – Henry McLeish

Voter suppression tactics are being used to disenfranchise ethnic minorities in the US in a return to the racism of the Jim Crow era, writes Henry McLeish.

Joe Biden must beat Donald Trump to save democracy in the US (Picture: Gerald Herbert/AP)

Presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden has, in the last few days, reminded us that despite the pandemic and Donald Trump’s heroic efforts to escape the blame for the coronavirus now ravaging the US, this is still election year.

Bernie Sanders’ withdrawal from the race for the nomination, accompanied by public endorsements from Sanders, Barack Obama, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, have left Biden clear to focus exclusively on Trump.

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A good week for the Democratic Party was given a further boost with the surprising victory for the Democrats in the key battleground state of Wisconsin as a loyal Trump incumbent was ousted from the state’s Supreme Court.

Amid America’s increasingly dysfunctional institutions and bitter cultural divisions, Biden will face a reinvigorated Republican offensive designed to stop African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans voting in November.

Known as voter suppression, and unique amongst Western liberal democracies, this is America’s shame. One political party is using the smokescreen of tackling voter fraud to prevent minorities from voting.

Republicans at all levels of government are turning their back on the importance of universal suffrage and the idea of liberal democracy. In most democracies, voting is made as simple as possible, with the absolute minimum of restrictions. But not in America.

Promoting this toxic mix of race, ethnicity, identity and culture as a political strategy defiles a democracy, degrades the humanity of those it is aimed at, and demoralises millions of people who may see elections and voting as their only opportunity to improve their lives.

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African American families, living in the “dixie” southern states, who are the main targets of voter suppression, have endured centuries of racial abuse and discrimination: and it is still happening today. After the first African American voted on 31 March 1870, under the provisions of the 15th amendment to the US Constitution, minorities are still fighting for the “right to vote” 150 years later. But they are now joined by Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans, in experiencing the same violations of their human rights.

Trump has given new impetus to the idea that white is best and minorities don’t matter. The President has claimed that voter fraud is rampant in America, especially in 2016, without offering a shred of evidence. UFO sightings and getting struck by lightning are more common.

A plot to destroy democracy

The Republican Party is running out of white voters and will do everything possible to stop minorities voting. Their fragile grip on power is weakening. Their base is shrinking. Governors and legislators, in more than half of the states, are working on a variety of voter suppression schemes designed to stop or make voting more difficult.

The Democrats have a different electoral challenge. To win, they must increase the overall electoral turnout, especially if Trump’s base remains solid. Minorities must vote in greater numbers if Biden is to win.

Sometimes described as a “plot” to destroy America’s democracy, the voter-suppression battle plan of the Republican Party was enormously boosted by a decision of the right-leaning Supreme Court. In 2013, the Court decided racism was a thing of the past and gutted the 1965 Voters Rights Act by withdrawing Federal oversight of electoral activities and allowing US states to step up their efforts to stop minorities voting.

A well-planned national campaign followed and a little-known and highly secretive organisation called the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec) started to produce hundreds of model laws each year for Republican legislators to introduce and enact. This was financed by two billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch, and other right-wing donors, who have figured prominently in changing the nature and direction of American politics: put more bluntly, destroying democracy.

The aim of the Republican leadership is to protect their power by suppressing the votes of minorities, the young, the uneducated and the poor – who usually vote for the Democrats – by using a vast range of weapons from their political armoury.

The measures are deeply offensive: voter intimidation; criminalisation of voter registration drives; re-introducing disguised poll taxes; racially gerrymandering voter districts; draconian voter roll purges; restricting voting on college campuses; electing right-wing judges to uphold Jim Crow-themed legislation; more restrictive voter ID processes; cutting back on early and absentee voting; making it harder to restore voter rights after criminal convictions; making it harder for voters to register.

A legacy of slavery

Closing convenient polling stations, restricting voting times or moving polling stations miles from where people live are commonplace.

For vote-rigging, Georgia is the flagship US state. Nearly 220 polling stations have been closed, early voting has been cut back, and 1.5 million voters were purged from the electoral role between 2012 to 2016.

Most Western democracies wouldn’t tolerate the moral, political and constitutional outrage of voter suppression. But America seems unconcerned about the violation of political rights for 40 per cent of its population.

America’s voter crisis is easily explained. It is about the legacy of slavery. The 15th Amendment confirmed the right to vote which “could not be denied or hampered because of race, colour or previous conditions of servitude”. This is being ignored.

It is about the racism of Trump’s doctrine of “white is best”, and an emboldened Grand Old Party indulging in identity and exclusion politics, and exploiting race and ethnicity in an increasingly hate-filled America. It is about the decline of the Republican Party, unable or unwilling to reach out and work with minorities to win their support and respond to their ambitions as fellow Americans. Instead, if the Republicans can’t win your vote, they will take your vote. It is about the rejection of a deeper and broader humanity. African Americans and other minorities are now treated as aliens in their own country.

It is also about the failure of the Democratic Party to comprehend the magnitude of what has been happening in America and to reverse, when in power, the electoral attacks on minorities, institutions and the laws which have created political apartheid in America.

To halt the decline of America’s democracy, presumptive Presidential candidate Joe Biden must not only defeat Trump, but win control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. This will allow him to address America’s shame, return meaning to the “idea of one person, one vote”, and save US democracy from the darker political forces now gaining the upper hand.

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