Keeping Down the Black Vote

 By Frances Fox Piven, Lorraine C. Minnite, and Margaret Groarke, with an introduction by Adam Cohen; New Press, 2009, 281 pp.

The sordid reality revealed in Keeping Down the Black Vote was frankly admitted by a top official in the Bush Justice Department from the book: "As Joe Rich, who headed the Voting Section of the Justice Department during the tumultuous elections of 2000 and 2004 said, ‘The GOP agenda is to make it harder to vote. You purge voters. You don’t register voters. You pick the states where you go after Democrats.’"

In effect, as authors Frances Fox Piven, Lorraine Minnite, and Margaret Groarke document, the Justice Department—the agency most central to protecting voting rights—was perverted to suppress those very rights among African Americans. Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys who refused to play along were purged by the Bush administration. For example, David Iglesias, the fired Republican U.S. attorney general in New Mexico, said that he investigated over 100 claims of alleged voter fraud, but found no credible evidence in any of the cases. (Vote fraud claims are exploited to enact additional registration and voting restrictions/requirements that hinder voting by poor people.)

Iglesias’s experience with the virtual non-existence of voter fraud is consistent with national data. "Federal records show that only 24 people were convicted or pleaded guilty to illegal voting between 2002 and 2005," as Minnite pointed out in her "The Politics of Fraud" report for A study by the Brennan Center for Justice concluded, "It’s more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."

Clearly, the notion of "voter fraud" has been exposed as largely a hoax: "Five years after the Bush administration began a crackdown on voter fraud, the Justice Department turned out virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections, according to court interviews and interviews," the NY Times reported (5/1207). Those few instances of voter fraud turned out to be cases like the hapless Wisconsin ex-convict who used his prison-issued identification card, stamped "offender," to register just before voting, unaware that those on probation or parole were ineligible in his state.

In contrast, the systematic suppression of African Americans’ right to vote has been a central part of American politics from the nation’s founding to the most recent elections. In 2000, the fraudulent denial of voting rights to at least 55,000 blacks in Florida—incorrectly listed as felons ineligible to vote by a Republican computer data firm—was crucial in swinging the presidency to George W. Bush, as BBC reporter Greg Palast documented in news reports virtually ignored in the U.S.

Again in the 2004 presidential election, results in the decisive state of Ohio were skewed by widespread efforts to suppress the black vote. To cite just one example, the allocation of voting machines in and around the state’s largest city of Columbus was strategically polarized along racial lines. The Columbus Free Press found that white Republican suburbanites, equipped with a surplus of machines, averaged waits of only 22 minutes, while black urban Democrats averaged 3 hours and 15 minutes. "The allocation of voting machines in Franklin County was clearly biased against voters in precincts with high proportions of African-Americans," concluded Walter Mebane Jr., a government professor at Cornell University who conducted a statistical analysis of the vote in and around Columbus. Black voters also faced artificial barriers like the "right church, wrong pew" gambit when they showed up at the correct room to vote, but were not steered to the correct table for their precinct.

Such strategies to undercut the mobilization of black voters have been central to American politics since the nation’s founding, and even the election of the first African-American president will not necessarily put a halt to voter suppression. Piven, Minnite, and Groarke warn against the notion that Barack Obama’s victory shows that "suppression is no longer a problem in American politics…. To the contrary," they argue, "voter suppression is embedded in enduring features of the American electoral system."

The awarding of disproportionate power to the wealthy, white, and male began with the nation’s founding: "This skewing of representation was indeed written into the American Constitution itself in the provisions that enlarged the representation in the Congress of southern slavocracy, including the infamous three-fifths rule, as well as with the allocation of Senate seats without regard to population."

The post-Reconstruction voter-suppression methods, spearheaded by Southern Democrats eager to restore the unchallenged power of planter elites against the black vote (and those of poor whites at times) have become infamous. Reconstruction-era black officeholders had reflected a set of priorities regarded as inimical to the interests of the powerful: "State constitutions were rewritten and democratized, investment in education and educational integration increased, and the laws were modified to protect agricultural laborers," the authors report. But whites used the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877 as an opportunity to disenfranchise blacks, with an arsenal that included restrictive registration requirements, the poll tax, literacy tests, felon disenfranchisement, and the widespread application of terror. Only the courage of 1960’s civil rights activists, knowingly risking death, finally brought the issue to the top of the nation’s agenda and resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, even now, felon disenfranchisement remains on the books as a key tool of voter suppression in Southern states: "Fully 13% of black men nationwide are disenfranchised by these laws," the authors point out. "In two states, almost one in three black men are."

A different set of motivations gave rise to a new version of voter-suppression tactics among Democrat machines in the North even after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, such as with the mayoral candidacies of progressives Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana in 1967 and Harold Washington in Chicago in 1983. To the white machines, blacks like Hatcher and Washington threatened both their cozy relations with corporate interests (in Gary, for example, U.S. Steel) and their voting base of white voters, who felt threatened by black demands for equality. This was exemplified when racist presidential candidate George Wallace carried every white precinct in and around Gary in 1964. "As the Republican strategy to encode the Democrats’ once-expansive domestic agenda as a form of racial favoritism continued, Democrats lost enthusiasm for integration, urban social programs, affirmative action, and other concessions to blacks," the authors note.

Thus, Hatcher’s campaign triggered an all-out counter-mobilization. Voter-registration procedures were revised to minimize the opportunity to sign up new voters. Public officials even initiated a slow-down in the hopes of frustrating those signing up to register. The Hatcher campaign was forced to prepare for the most extreme measures from the machine. On election day, "The Hatcher organization formed self-defense squads and relied on armed groups to force open polling places in black neighborhoods," the authors report. The Hatcher campaign also organized teams of mechanics to fix voting machines that inevitably "broke down" in black precincts. Elaborate procedures for ballot-box stuffing and other forms of voter fraud by the machine had to be uncovered and revealed.

By managing to mobilize a massive black turnout despite the barriers, Hatcher eventually prevailed over his Republican opponent by a narrow margin and went on to lead the city for two decades. Despite his best efforts in a time of support from Great Society programs and major foundations, his program of economic empowerment and justice was "foiled by the ongoing hollowing out of the city caused by white flight and business disinvestment," especially by U.S. Steel, the authors grimly note.

In the high-stakes game for Chicago’s mayoralty in 1983, Harold Washington brought a sterling record of standing up to the attacks on working people of all colors by the Reagan administration. From the outset, Washington sought to construct a multi-racial coalition and promised equal allocation of city resources to all neighborhoods. He wound up confronting an openly racist counterattack from "machine Democrats" like "Fast Eddie Vrdolyak," who declared the campaign "a racial thing…. I’m calling upon you to save your city, to save your precincts." Once Washington prevailed in the Democratic primary, the Machine switched its allegiances to an obscure Republican whose slogan was "Epton for Mayor—Before It’s Too Late." Nonetheless, the all-out mobilization of black voters overcame the nakedly racist appeals and Washington won by a slim margin.

The campaigns waged against African American mayoral candidates echoed the "Southern strategy" used by the Republicans in Nixon’s 1968 victory over Hubert Humphrey. Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained the strategy’s essence as one of translating racially-charged terms into more race-neutral language that would alert anti-black voters while allowing the GOP to plausibly deny any racist intent: "You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger!’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites."

The success of the Southern strategy profoundly colored the strategy and appeals of both parties in the closing decades of the 20th century. The Democrats came to be dominated by the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council, which preached "free trade" anathema to workers watching their jobs head off to China and Mexico, de-emphasized social programs vital to increasingly poor and isolated inner-city residents, and stressed the importance of the Democrats’ ending their close identification with African Americans. Piven, Minnite, and Groarke describe this turn: "Republican campaigns first weakened the Democrats by drawing away erstwhile Democratic white voters with race-based appeals, and then weakened the Democrats again by engaging in multiple stratagems to suppress the black vote. Democrats scarcely resisted, because they worried about the racial fractures within the ranks of their own constituency, and also because they worried that black policy demands would alienate business supporters…. They responded weakly and ambivalently."

The Republican strategy has been anything but "ambivalent." For the past six decades the party has engaged in broad and extensive strategies to suppress the African American vote. The first signs of this appeared in 1954 with GOP "voter caging" operations. Caging is a technique for rendering citizens ineligible to vote by supposedly proving that voters do not live at their listed address. The Republicans send out thousands of first class letters to black voters marked "do not forward." Returned letters are interpreted by the Republicans as definitive proof that the voters no longer reside in the district, when they might have simply moved to a nearby location, were attending college, or serving in the military.

Based on this shaky premise, Republican operatives armed with lists then flood black precincts on Election Day, challenging the right to vote of citizens whose letters were returned to the RNC. This technique is still used, "Nearly 35,000 unsuspecting Ohio voters, most of them black," were declared ineligible in 2004, Piven, Minnite, and Groarke state.

One of the more spectacular examples of voter suppression surfaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when a young and ambitious Republican lawyer named William H. Rehnquist headed up "Operation Eagle Eye," the Republicans’ "ballot security program" in Phoenix. Rehnquist and his disciples singled out black and Latino precincts. They challenged voters about their knowledge of the Constitution and warned them that voting improperly was a federal crime. The apparent motive was to disrupt the voting process and cause delays, which would discourage people from waiting in long lines.

While Rehnquist denied personal involvement in tactics of intimidation and harassment, he was contradicted by eyewitnesses at his hearing for appointment to the Supreme Court in 1971 and again in 1984 when he was nominated to be Chief Justice. Despite the centrality of voter-suppression charges during the 36-day drama in Florida in 2000 when the presidency hung in the balance, there was little mainstream media mention of Rehnquist’s past history. Rehnquist, as might have been expected, voted with the 5-4 majority to declare George Bush the winner.

Observing the overall low turnout among voters in the U.S. compared with other democracies and, in particular, its class-skewed nature where the affluent vote in much higher numbers than workers and the poor, Piven and her partner, the late Richard Cloward, pioneered a strategy for mass voter registration. Outlined in their book Why Americans Don’t Vote, it was based on the theory that non-voters could be transformed into a force for economic justice if they could be persuaded to register and vote. Eventually, Piven and a coalition of voting-rights and civil-rights groups recognized that the only mechanism for mass registration had to be mandated. The basic concept: when people applied for a driver’s license or food stamps or any other form of assistance, they would be given a form to register to vote on the spot. This idea finally came to fruition with the passage of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) in 1993, signed into law by President Clinton, but with only 11 percent of House GOP members voting in favor of the bill.

Nonetheless, once enacted, the law encountered a host of legal challenges from 11 governors (10 of them Republican) who recognized that the enlargement of the electorate posed a threat to them and their party. Though their legal complaints were defeated, conservatives have enthusiastically used NVRA provisions for purging voters while discouraging public agencies from registering new voters. The Department of Justice has even concentrated its resources on suing states for failing to purge voters more aggressively, while ignoring state agencies’ unwillingness to implement the primary provisions of the law. Tragically, "Applications, as reported by the states covered by the NVRA, increased less than 20%" from 1995 to 1995-96, eventually reaching 49.6 million applicants in 2003-4. "Meanwhile, names deleted …climbed 45 percent, from 8.7 million in 1995-96 to 12.6 million in 2005-06," the authors concede.

With a Justice Department orchestrated by top Bush officials like Karl Rove, there was little fear during the Bush administration that policies that discouraged minority voting would face federal challenge. Moreover, media coverage of the 2007 scandal surrounding the Department of Justice’s hiring of "loyal Bushies" and the firing of eight U.S. attorneys focused overwhelmingly on the methods, rather than the voter-suppression drive that motivated many of the firings.

As a result of the failure to enforce the NVRA’s intent, citizen groups had to revitalize their efforts to register voters. They managed to sign up about 12 million voters around the time of the 2004 election. Shockingly, "This is far higher than the number of people registering at public social service agencies mandated by the NVRA to provide registration opportunities," the authors point out.

But relying on volunteer or low-paid workers to register voters greatly adds to the potential for errors and duplication in the process. As the authors stress, "This is one of the consequences of a personal registration system that ‘outsources’ voter registration work to the public at large rather than placing the burden of registration on government, as is done in many of the European democracies."

Any errors committed by voter-registration drives like those led by ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, provide opportunities for conservatives to make spectacular charges of voter fraud and call for measures to ensure "ballot integrity." Thus, in the October 15 presidential debate, John McCain inflated tiny ACORN into a giant redwood about to topple American democracy. ACORN "is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy," McCain thundered.

In a similar vein, a Virginia Republican leader captured headlines and stoked fears by charging that voter registrars were using the drive in his state to both commit electoral fraud and engage in identity theft. It was not until the last paragraph of the Washington Post story that the reader learned that the accusation was based on a single case and that the voter registration group itself called authorities to seek action.

Media coverage of voter suppression invariably portrays the issue as between Republican proponents of the "voter fraud" thesis and liberals who argue that the voter ID laws are aimed precisely at suppressing the votes of poor and minority voters who are likely to vote Democratic. The threat to democracy is outside the media frame. Pam Fessler’s NPR (9/12/08) coverage of an Ohio voter-rights battle exemplified this type of he-said, she-said coverage that bypasses the considerable evidence that voter fraud is extremely rare and that efforts to remedy this "problem" result in restricting the franchise. Fessler also neglected the well-documented Republican efforts to frustrate registration and voting by African Americans and other Democratic constituencies. Fessler’s presentation gave no hint of this context: "Political groups are wrangling over voter registrations and access to the polls. In Ohio, Democrats and Republicans are fighting over interpretation of a state law, which Democrats say allows voters to register and immediately cast an absentee ballot. Republicans say that opens the door to fraud."

Keeping Down the Black Vote leads one to conclude that America’s democratic machinery has effectively regressed since the Florida debacle of 2000. Unaccountable electronic voting systems have proliferated and are often tied to highly partisan Republican corporations. No fewer than half the states have enacted "voter ID" laws, despite clear evidence that it would discourage voting, especially by people of color, without preventing a scintilla of fraud. A Wisconsin study showed that requiring a state-issued ID like a driver’s license would have a highly disparate impact on African Americans, Latinos, and the elderly. "Among black males between ages 18 and 24, 78% lacked a driver’s license," one study of Milwaukee found (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 6/15/05). Moreover, a study of the 2004 election directed by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University showed turnout in 2004 about 4 percent lower, especially for minorities, in states that required voters to produce documentation.

Until the U.S. adopts a set of reforms to ensure genuinely democratic electoral processes—breaking the financial link between primarily corporate contributors and candidates; requiring public rather than private administration of voting procedures and equipment; aggressive implementation of the National Voter Registration Act requiring public agencies to actively offer voter registration; and minimum federal standards that encourage voter registration—the U.S. will face ongoing attempts at voter suppression targeted especially at African Americans. Keeping Down the Black Vote is an invaluable warning that must not be ignored.


Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications.