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The Turnout Gap

I’ve been making my way through The Turnout Gap by Bernard L. Fraga to better understand who votes and why.

I had absolutely no idea how bad it got for Black voting after Reconstruction with the implementation of Jim Crow:

Black turnout declined from 61 percent in the eleven former states of the Confederacy in 1880 to 17 percent in 1900 and 2 percent in 1912. White turnout also dropped, but only to 55 percent in 1900 and 40 percent in 1912. (Page 57)

None of this was implemented with actual racial language in the law, of course. The legalistic restrictions were poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses that privileged those (white people) who had previously been able to vote. The law was coupled, as unjust laws usually are, with intimidation and violence.

Many of these policies primarily targeted Black people but these, and others, disenfranchised all people of color. I didn’t recall, for example, the “White Primary” which - since the South was effectively under one-party rule by the Democrats - prevented any non-white person from any meaningful participation in politics. This was as true for Latino people in Texas as it was for Black people in Mississippi.

As an aside, I owe my ignorance on these topics to a whitewashed North Carolina public school education and my own intellectual laziness for never seeking to understand this topic better. That’s how these systems reinforce themselves.

I was reminded of the awful history of white Democratic rule while reading Clare Malone’s The Republican Choice on FiveThirtyEight this morning. As Black people fought for their rights, the Republican party cravenly courted racist southern Democrats as part of the Southern Strategy. They did this, of course, while publicly disavowing racism (even though occasionally, someone says the quiet thing out loud).

All this is to say that voter disenfranchisement seems to be a feature, not a bug, of the American system. Though the parties switched in the mid-20th century and the rhetoric may have (prior to 2016, at least) softened, the tactics and the racists have remained the same all this time. The high democratic ideals of America - compromised and abridged from the moment they were articulated - mean nothing if those in power choose their voters but instead it’s the other way.

So do we give up? Is the system irredeemably unjust, corrupt and racist? Amazingly, after all that suppression, violence and disenfranchisement, today Black people turn out at the same rate (or greater) as white people. We should not, of course, view this through the lens of “progress”. It isn’t progress when your rightful belongings are returned to you after being stolen by force.

However, maybe, just maybe, this time it’s different. We may be on the precipice of additional long overdue steps towards a more just system. It’s time to protest, then vote.

Voting only changes things if it’s a truly universal franchise that represents the will of all the people, not just those who already hold the power. For those of us with privilege, we have an obligation to use that privilege against the systems that discriminate and disenfranchise. We must do everything we can to register voters whose voices have been historically silenced and enable them to cast a vote free of fear - or else we’re complicit.