The viral political video of last week was captured at the CNN town hall for Democratic candidates. Host Anderson Cooper asked Democratic upstart Pete Buttigieg whether convicted felons should be able to vote. Buttigieg replied, “No, I don’t think so,” the crowd erupted in applause, and the camera cut to the audience. Everyone in the reaction shot was clapping except a single incredulous black woman. Her jaw dropped in shock, and she turned to the person sitting next to her, drowning in disappointment at the crowd’s support for felon disenfranchisement.
Buttigieg explained that once felons have served their time, their freedoms, including the right to vote, should be restored. He also noted that political opposition to felon re-enfranchisement “has some racial layers to it,” because the GOP frequently opposes such efforts to limit the power of black and brown voters. The “racial layers” Buttigieg speaks of are the key to understanding the woman’s reaction. Black women are the base of the Democratic electorate; no demographic group votes for Democratic candidates more consistently. Yet black women, and black voters more broadly, have an acute sense of the imbalance between their commitment to the party and the positions of moderate white candidates and voters.
As The Marshall Project explains, legislation stripping incarcerated people of their voting rights is white-supremacist Jim Crow policy. Such laws were passed specifically to keep black Americans from voting. The criminal justice system remains rife with institutional racism at every level, and black and brown people are disproportionately affected by the lifelong political, social, and psychological harms of incarceration. When politicians use ambiguous phrases like “racial layers” instead of “racist” and take policy positions too weak to address these problems adequately, black voters can’t help but feel as though we are taken for granted.
Mayor Pete’s candidacy has strengths, and his stance aligns with most of the Democratic field. While several front-runners for the nomination support restoring the vote to formerly incarcerated people, only Bernie Sanders affirms that the right should remain intact while someone is imprisoned. Buttigieg missed an opportunity, not only to distinguish himself as a candidate who speaks frankly about racism, but to link felon disenfranchisement to the ongoing crisis of voter suppression.
Denying the black vote is a national tradition, and was a key factor in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. A new voter ID law in Wisconsin led to the lowest voter turnout in the state in 20 years. A study published by the University of Wisconsin Elections Research Center affirmed that deterrence was especially high in Milwaukee and Dane counties, two Democratic strongholds, and that 8.3 percent of white registrants were deterred, compared to 27.5 percent of African-Americans.
In 2013 the GOP-led state Legislature in North Carolina passed a slew of voting laws designed to suppress black and Hispanic votes. The legislation was struck down in federal court in 2016 because it was nakedly discriminatory. But the North Carolina GOP continued its suppression efforts by limiting early voting in advance of the 2016 election, and 9 percent fewer black voters cast their votes that year than in 2012.
North Carolina has continued its efforts by severely limiting early voting during the 2018 midterm elections. This story was largely drowned out by the corrupt gubernatorial election in Georgia, where rising Democratic star Stacey Abrams lost to Republican Brian Kemp. Kemp was the secretary of state during the race and in charge of voting oversight. Kemp delayed the processing of over 50,000 voter registration applications, 70 percent of which came from black applicants. Kemp stipulated that those voters would still be able to vote on Election Day if they presented proper identification. But Election Day in Georgia was a comedy of errors, with voting machine malfunctions that required extended voting hours, and poll workers running out of provisional ballots and turning potential voters away.
The drumbeat continues through 2019. The state Senate in Tennessee passed the first bill imposing fines and other penalties upon voter registration organizations and volunteers for submitting incomplete paperwork.
And to bring things full circle, a major battle is underway in Florida over the restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated felons. In January, Florida voters passed legislation reinstating the voting rights of 1.4 million formerly imprisoned people. But the Florida House passed a bill curtailing those rights, forcing formerly convicted felons to pay all outstanding court fees and fines before regaining the right to vote. As Corey Booker succinctly tweeted, “This is a poll tax,” straight from the Jim Crow playbook, with the exact same motivations. The bill still requires the approval of the state’s Republican governor and Senate before going into effect, and they may pass a weaker version of the legislation, but the intent is clear.
Perhaps the most harrowing part of the ongoing nightmare of voter suppression is that the Voting Rights Act was gutted by Chief Justice John Roberts and the Supreme Court in 2013. Roberts’s opinion at the time, which would be laughable if it weren’t so harmful and wrong, was that “our country has changed,” and is no longer racist enough to require federal oversight of state electoral processes. In the face of these challenges, Abrams has emerged as a leading voice on this issue, forming her own voting rights organization and expertly describing the combination of legal tactics and grass-roots organizing needed to meet this existential threat to American democracy.
Republicans have made it plain: Voter suppression in all its forms is racist, and it is essential to their electoral success. Buttigieg and the rest of the Democratic candidates need to understand that there is no middle ground when it comes to protecting and expanding the right to vote.
Michael P. Jeffries is an associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College and author of three books, most recently, “Behind the Laughs: Community and Inequality in Comedy.”