Black voter suppression near 1950s level

The 1963 March on Washington. Photo: Marion S. Trikosko

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled July 6 that states can penalize members of the Electoral College who do not support the winner of their state’s popular vote in a presidential election. 

The court’s ruling is in response to the 2016 presidential election, when 10 electors voted for someone other than their state’s chosen candidate, highlighting how electors have the potential to swing an election. The ruling does not in any way change the Electoral College system.

The U.S. does not have direct elections for the president of the republic, though direct elections are considered to be the norm for a bourgeois democracy. The ability to vote directly is synonymous with democratic rights; the inability synonymous with denial of rights. The Electoral College system, borrowed from the Roman slave empire’s constitution some 2,000 years ago, gives only a semblance of voting rights, keeping real power in the hands of the wealthy few.

Indirect elections, through the Electoral College, increase the power of the wealthy. 

In the 2000 election, George W. Bush lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College. The same happened again with Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote in 2016 by almost 3 million votes — over 2 percent  — but won the indirect Electoral College vote.

The 2020 election campaigns of the Democrats and Republicans have almost exclusively focused on winning the Electoral College vote, particularly in what are called “battleground states.” 

Court gutted Voting Rights Act

The Supreme Court has already gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder ruling eliminated federal oversight of state election and voting laws.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice: “The decision in Shelby County opened the floodgates to laws restricting voting throughout the United States. The effects were immediate. Within 24 hours of the ruling, Texas announced that it would implement a strict photo ID law. Two other states, Mississippi and Alabama, also began to enforce photo ID laws that had previously been barred because of federal preclearance.”

In July 2017, in Georgia, 600,000 people, some 8 percent of the state’s registered voters, were purged from the rolls and required to re-register — an estimated 107,000 of them simply because they hadn’t voted in recent elections. In 2018, the state blocked the registration of 53,000 state residents, 70 percent of whom were African American.

Voter ID laws and other restrictions that fall most heavily on African American and Latinx people have been initiated in a number of other states, not all in the South. Polling locations have been closed, early voting restricted and registration rules made stricter.

Black voter suppression in this country has returned to near 1950s levels.

Constitution gave power to slaveholders

In 1787, the Constitution was adopted to insure that the executive power was always held by the slave-holding class. Of the first 10 presidents of the U.S., only two, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, were not slave owners.

In writing on the Electoral College’s racist origins, Yale constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar says: 

“If the system’s pro-slavery tilt was not overwhelmingly obvious when the Constitution was ratified, it quickly became so. For 32 of the Constitution’s first 36 years, a white slaveholding Virginian occupied the presidency.

“Southerner Thomas Jefferson, for example, won the election of 1800-01 against Northerner John Adams in a race where the slavery-skew of the Electoral College was the decisive margin of victory: without the extra Electoral College votes generated by slavery, the mostly southern states that supported Jefferson would not have sufficed to give him a majority. As pointed observers remarked at the time, Thomas Jefferson metaphorically rode into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves.” (“The Troubling Reason the Electoral College Exists” by Akhil Reed Amar, Time, Nov. 8, 2016)

More than two centuries after it was designed to empower a slavocracy, the system continues to suppress the Black vote and empower the wealthy.

Voting in 1787 was restricted to white male adult property owners, about 6 percent of the population. In the early 1800s, the property requirement was gradually changed to paying taxes so that by 1857, all white male taxpayers were allowed to vote. Citizenship was not required until 1928, following an anti-socialist, anti-immigrant campaign that led to the illegal deportation of 1.8 million people.

The Reconstruction era 15th Amendment states that voting rights cannot be denied or abridged based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” And briefly, voting rights were opened to African Americans. Disfranchisement came after the defeat of Reconstruction, with Jim Crow laws effectively keeping voting limited to white male taxpayers. 

The segregation and disenfranchisement laws known as “Jim Crow” represented a formal, codified system of racial apartheid that dominated the U.S. in the North as well as the South for three quarters of a century beginning in the 1890s.

Great struggles were waged in the following years and over time more democratic rights were won, particularly the right to vote. After a mass women’s movement for suffrage, women’s right to vote was won in 1920, with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. 

In 1964, the 24th Amendment prohibited the requirement to pay poll taxes in order to vote. Not until the historic Civil Rights movement won the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a nationwide “one person, one vote” electoral system established in the U.S., with the exception of prisoners. 

6 million denied right to vote

According to the Sentencing Project, as of 2010 an estimated 6 million people in this country were denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction, a number equivalent to 2.5 percent of the U.S. voting-age population. That number is certainly higher today. Given the racist justice system, these 6 million are predominantly from Black and Brown communities.

So the 1965 Voting Rights Act was functionally broken by the Supreme Court in 2013.

As Civil Rights leader Rep. John Lewis said this year on June 25, the anniversary day of the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision: “The record is clear. A rampant war is being waged against minorities’ voting rights in my home state of Georgia and across the nation.” 

Lewis has introduced a resolution for a Right to Vote Amendment to the Constitution, as the right to vote is still not guaranteed. The amendment includes a provision to stop any attempts to restrict voting rights.

This year’s elections have already seen widespread denial of voting rights. In fact, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee have mounted an aggressive national effort to suppress voting rights, which they call “voter fraud.” It’s an in-your-face racist maneuver. Without a fight, the Black vote will be suppressed.

The Black Lives Matter movement has put a spotlight on the institutionalized racism governing this country. The electoral system is part of that. There’s more than statues that need to be toppled.