Then Kavanagh went even further, suggesting that not all eligible voters are of the same quality.
“Not everybody wants to vote, and if somebody is uninterested in voting, that probably means that they’re totally uninformed on the issues,” he added. “Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.”
“To paraphrase George Orwell,” Columbia University history professor Eric Foner told CNN, “there are those who feel that some voters are more equal than others. And that’s an attitude being implemented right now in some legislatures.”
To the surprise of no one, much of this maneuvering disproportionately targets voters of color — in particular Black voters, who played a critical role in helping Democrats secure both the White House and the US Senate.
The current assault on participatory democracy is disturbing not because it’s new — but rather because the country has been here so many times before. US history is rife with examples, many of them violent, of attempts to quash Black voting power, stretching back to at least the mid-19th century.
The reason: to terrorize Black voters (and anyone who supported Reconstruction efforts) in the run-up to the November presidential contest between Ulysses S. Grant — whose incarnation of the Republican Party backed legislation supporting Black Americans — and Democrat Horatio Seymour, pitched as the “White man’s candidate.”
(It’s worth remembering that today’s Republicans are the contemporary successors to the 19th-century Democrats. In fits and starts over much of the 20th century, the two parties realigned, propelled largely by the matter of civil rights reforms.)
As in 1868, power was at the heart of the issue. Most of the attackers were ex-Confederate soldiers, and many of them also belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Through arson and murder, the group fought to bolster White supremacist policies and keep formerly enslaved people away from the polls — out of the polity.
Governments in the South, in complete violation of the 15th Amendment, began to take away Black men’s right to vote — not explicitly but obliquely, via an elaborate mix of, among other things, registration requirements, poll taxes, literacy tests and understanding clauses (where a would-be voter had to prove to a registrar that he understood the state’s constitution; amazingly, Black men never seemed to understand it).
The Reconstruction governments were gone. This was a new era of racial subjugation, captured in the term “Jim Crow.”
In other words, while the approach evolved — became just slightly less egregious — the aim never wavered.
Crucially, political violence remained rampant. It underpinned the Jim Crow racial regime.
“The 1898 coup capped a months-long White Supremacy Campaign in North Carolina designed to strip Black men of the vote and remove them from public office forever,” he explained.
Former Republican strategist Lee Atwater summarized the racial dimension of the strategy the following way.
‘This is Jim Crow in new clothes’
Not everyone on the Court agreed. Underscoring the wrongheadedness of the decision, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her powerful dissent 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.”
“One of the lessons, unfortunately, was what can happen to your rights in the hands of a conservative Supreme Court,” Foner told CNN.
The avowed reason for proposing such legislation is election security. But that explanation is little more than a canard, in light of the fact that Americans weren’t really worried about election security until Republicans started talking about it, and Republicans didn’t start talking about it until they started losing recent elections.
“There’s a growing trend on the right in which any election they lose is dismissed as illegitimate,” Princeton University history professor Kevin M. Kruse said. “The proponents of voter suppression have created a fiction in which they are the victims of mass voter fraud. They are never able to provide any proof of that, but they believe it all the same.”
Warnock’s focus on the past makes good sense.
The task today is to use the past — to understand its racial hierarchies and how they persist — in order to create a tomorrow in which everyone is equal.
CNN’s Nicquel Terry Ellis contributed to this report.