US history shows political machinations intended to ensure power for White men

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A timeline of new and old efforts to limit the political power of Black Americans and other voters of color

Analysis by Brandon Tensley, CNN

“We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve ever seen since the Jim Crow era. This is Jim Crow in new clothes.”

That was newly elected Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, giving his maiden floor speech in March. His focus on the past — on how racial hierarchies persist — makes good sense.

As of March 24, lawmakers in 47 states have introduced more than 360 bills this year with provisions that restrict voting access, according to New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

(For a rough comparison: The Brennan Center’s tally in early February 2020 identified 35 restrictive bills in 15 states.)

Much of this legislative blitz, which follows Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the November presidential election, disproportionately targets voters of color — in particular Black voters, who played a critical role in winning both the White House and the US Senate for Democrats.

The current assault on participatory democracy is consistent with a long US history of political machinations intended to ensure power for White men and keep it at a distance for everyone else, most especially Black Americans.

The timeline below lays out some important dates in this history, as well as dates that mark significant advancements in voting rights.

The years between 1863 and 1877 saw tremendous gains for Black Americans, including the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. But the period was also turbulent — shaped by political violence aimed at reestablishing White authority.

    • According to Columbia University history professor Eric Foner, the Reconstruction era began more than a year before the end of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln, the country’s first Republican president, “announced a plan to establish governments in the South loyal to the Union.”

      These governments backed legislation guaranteeing Black Americans’ rights and were vehemently opposed by the counter-revolutionary “Redemption” movement that swept the South.

    • At the Battle of Appomattox Court House in Virginia, Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Army general Ulysses S. Grant, for all practical purposes ending four years of war.

    • In his message, Johnson said that “Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”

      Johnson’s racist remarks illuminated the controversy that still raged over Black Americans’ hard-fought rights during the tumultuous period following the Civil War.

    • The second of the three Reconstruction amendments, the 14th Amendment extended citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States” and also secured all citizens “equal protection under the laws.”

    • Over the course of about two weeks, White men in Opelousas, a city in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, killed around 250 people, mostly Black Americans.

      The goal was to suppress turnout among Black voters (and anyone who supported Reconstruction efforts) — earlier that year, Louisiana voters had ratified a state constitution that enfranchised Black men.

    • The third of the three Reconstruction amendments, the 15th Amendment prohibited states from taking away the right to vote “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

      But states could still impose voter qualifications. And in time, many former Confederate states did exactly that.

    • A mob of about 150 armed White men in Colfax, the seat of Grant Parish, Louisiana, killed between 60 and 150 Black Americans who had taken over the local courthouse and been defending it from possible Democratic seizure following the state’s controversial 1872 gubernatorial election.

      The massacre showed “the lengths to which some opponents of Reconstruction would go to regain their accustomed authority,” Foner documents in his 1988 book, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.”

    • Shortly before Grant left office, an Electoral Commission was created to settle the disputed 1876 presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. Democrats agreed to give Hayes the presidency on the understanding that the federal government would remove its troops from the former Confederate states.

      This compromise — or as some historians have it, betrayal — marked the end of Reconstruction.

      “The phase that began in 1877 was inaugurated by … the abandonment of the Negro as a ward of the nation,” historian C. Vann Woodward writes in his 1955 book, “The Strange Career of Jim Crow.”

Around the turn of the 20th century, Southern lawmakers, aware of the fact that they couldn’t explicitly disenfranchise Black voters, began to impose an elaborate mix of, among other things, registration requirements, poll taxes, literacy tests and understanding clauses designed to underpin a new racial regime.

    • Delegates convened to rewrite Mississippi’s constitution — to skirt the 15th Amendment and functionally disenfranchise Black voters. Adopted on November 1, the constitution achieved the delegates’ chief aim through instituting mechanisms including poll taxes and literacy tests.

      One of the state constitution’s framers, Democrat James K. Vardaman, who would go on to become governor and a US Senator, saw no need to hide his disdain for Black Americans.

      “Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the n****r from politics,” he once said.

      In time, other states across the South took a cue from Mississippi.

      “What happened in Mississippi set the stage for the other states of the old Confederacy and therefore defined the history of the 20th-century South, its race relations, economic stagnation and the strictures of Jim Crow,” historian Dorothy Overstreet Pratt writes in her 2017 book, “Sowing the Wind: The Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890.”

    • The decision, joined by all eight justices who participated in the case, found that Oklahoma’s grandfather clause exemption to literacy tests violated the 15th Amendment. While the decision had relatively little effect — the state merely found other ways to disenfranchise Black voters — the case helped establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had filed a brief, as a key voting rights advocate for Black Americans.

    • The 8-1 decision overturned a previous decision (Grovey v. Townsend, 1935), concluding that it was in violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments for the Texas Democratic Party to prohibit Black Americans from voting in the Democratic primary (the White primary system).

      As the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund argues, “(The decision) signaled the beginning of the Second Reconstruction and the modern civil rights movement. The political and social advances of Blacks simply could not have occurred without the changes that came in the wake of the overthrow of the Democratic White primary.”

    • The law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, and later was expanded to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

    • Up to 600 activists set out in Alabama to march from Selma to Montgomery to protest for Black voting rights. But when the marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they encountered White state troopers, who attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas.

      The event became known as Bloody Sunday.

      “I went down on my knees. My legs went out from under me. I thought I was going to die,” the late civil rights leader John Lewis told CNN in 2015.

      The images of the assault on the marchers accelerated the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965.

    • Designed to undergird the protections enshrined in the 14th and 15th Amendments, this watershed piece of federal legislation prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

    • Republican President George W. Bush signed legislation extending the VRA for an additional 25 years, saying that “the right of ordinary men and women to determine their own political future lies at the heart of the American experiment.”

      Of the era’s political environment, author David Daley wrote for The New Republic last year that “even though Republican presidents were still nominating judges who undermined ballot access, and members of both parties confirmed them to the bench, few respectable, elected voices on either side were willing to publicly countenance a frontal assault on American voting rights.”

Following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in the Shelby County v. Holder case, states in the South and beyond began to unleash a wave of election changes to take advantage of the Court’s erosion of the VRA’s protections. These changes continue to this day.

    • The 5-4 decision defanged the VRA by freeing jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination in voting from having to gain federal approval, called “preclearance,” before changing their election laws.

      In her renowned dissent, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

      The uptick in restrictive voting laws following the decision proved Ginsburg right.

      For instance, on the same day that the Court decided in the case surrounding Shelby County, Texas, which used to be subject to preclearance, enacted a voter identification law — “the most stringent in the country,” as a federal court described it the previous year.

      More recently, Arizona and Georgia — also former preclearance states — have joined Texas to become the states with the highest number of bills restricting voting access introduced in the 2021 legislative session.

    • Also called the Voting Rights Advancement Act, HR 4 would revise parts of the VRA that were gutted as a result of the 2013 Shelby County decision. HR 4 wasn’t brought up for a vote in the Senate (which at the time was controlled by Republicans), and it has not yet been introduced in the current Congress.

    • Not long after Biden’s projected win, Republican Donald Trump and his allies began pushing baseless claims of mass voter fraud in cities including Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — cities that are majority Black or have significant Black populations. The implicit message was that certain votes shouldn’t count.

    • Ralston said that he’s “certain” that election reform will take center stage in the upcoming legislative session, and he announced that he’d be appointing a special “election integrity” committee to examine Georgia’s election laws. In addition, Ralston signaled a readiness to consider “taking the elections function out of that (the secretary of state’s) office.”

      Recall that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, repeatedly disputed Trump’s baseless claims of mass voter fraud in the Peach State.

    • The case centers on two Arizona policies: One discards out-of-precinct ballots, and the other largely prohibits third-party groups from returning early ballots for another person. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals struck down these policies, arguing that they’re racially discriminatory under the VRA.

      Many Republicans hope that the Court will come to a different conclusion and thus open up the possibility for more restrictive voting laws nationwide.

    • Also called the For the People Act, HR 1, which was originally introduced in 2019, would expand voting via policies such as automatic and same-day voter registration. However, HR 1 faces long odds in the 50-50 Senate at least in part because of the filibuster, a tactic that’s long been used to frustrate civil rights progress.

    • In his first speech on the Senate floor, Warnock spoke about the precarious state of voting rights.

      “We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve ever seen since the Jim Crow era,” he said. “It is a contradiction to say we must protect minority rights in the Senate while refusing to protect minority rights in the society.”

    • SB 202 imposes new voter identification requirements for absentee ballots, allows state officials to take over local election boards, curbs the use of ballot drop boxes and makes it a crime for people who aren’t poll workers to approach voters in line to give them food and water.

      Democrat Stacey Abrams — who founded Fair Fight after losing to Kemp in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, a race choked with controversy — has been vocal in her opposition to Georgia Republicans’ antidemocratic maneuvering.

      “At a time when Georgia ranks as the worst state for Covid vaccination rates, Georgia Republicans instead are singularly focused on reviving Georgia’s dark past of racist voting laws,” Abrams said in a March statement.

    • SB 90 imposes stricter voter identification requirements for voting by mail, limits who can pick up and return a voter’s ballot, and prohibits private funding for elections, among other things.

      “Me signing this bill says, ‘Florida, your vote counts. Your vote is going to be cast with integrity and transparency, and this is a great place for democracy,’” DeSantis said after signing the bill, repeating that deceptive Republican watchword: integrity.

      Mere minutes after DeSantis signed the bill, a coalition that includes the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Black Voters Matter Fund filed a lawsuit to challenge several of the new law’s provisions.

      Democratic state Rep. Michael Grieco saw clear parallels between Georgia’s SB 202 and Florida’s SB 90.

      “That bill that was passed in the state just north of us sent us a message, and the response to that bill should let us know we should not be doing this,” he said during House debate earlier this year.

      Grieco also made an appeal, “Please do not Georgia my Florida.”

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