Frantically saving himself from the rat-a-tat of queries from skeptical black journalists at a rushed “off record” session at the GOP headquarters months ago, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus dropped the only mic he could think of to shut up the crowd: “I used to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.”
Many in the room reacted with initial surprise at that, a few offering, “It’d help if you talked more about that.” But missed in the pity-me trick was an even larger question: If the head of the Republican Party was so eager to let the black press know about his brief stint as an NAACP LDF intern, how come he’s never said (or done) anything about his party’s all-out systematic bid to suppress black voters at the polls?
And while the RNC's urban media director, Telly Lovelace, might tell The Root that Republicans “remain focused on getting out the vote,” it’s become a bit obvious in recent years (and in the weeks running up to Nov. 8) that he probably doesn’t mean the black vote.
A string of federal court rulings explicitly struck down voter-ID laws in states like Kansas, North Carolina, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Texas. Yet some of the most flagrant violators called out by those same rulings are moving ahead with that anyway … and much more.
Polling precincts in Texas—where the presidential race appears to tighten—are still asking for IDs, questioning minority voters or altogether turning them away. Voters are calling in to hotlines, like the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law’s 866-VOTE-HOTLINE, complaining of either closed polling locations or several-hours-long early-voting lines as states refuse to commit the resources needed to ensure a smooth, fair and accurate democratic election. In North Carolina, a toss-up battleground state, widespread cancellation of voter registrations in black-heavy counties forced the state’s NAACP to sue the state.
“The Tar Heel State is ground zero in the intentional, surgical efforts by Republicans to suppress the voice of voters,” said the Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP. “We’re taking this emergency step to make sure not a single voter's voice is unlawfully taken away.”
In open-carry Virginia, election officials prepare for armed Donald Trump “poll watchers” in what seems like a Jim Crow throwback. Polling precincts are being set up at local law-enforcement stations with armed police present in Georgia. Gun-carrying, largely white “patriot” groups such as Oath Keepers have announced that they will conduct operations to prevent "voter fraud" in mostly minority communities.
In Florida, major cities like Fort Myers lack early-voting locations, while Ohio won’t let anyone register and vote on the same early-voting day, and the secretary of state dumped absentee ballots and purged 1 million voters; there are also claims from black voters in Cleveland of unidentified individuals walking through cities with fake illegal ballots and encouraging unsuspecting residents to vote on the spot.
In Indiana, land of Trump running mate Gov. Mike Pence, leaving nothing to chance, state police raided the Indiana Voter Registration Project offices and threatened the electoral participation of 45,000 black voters.
Meanwhile, ancient, unreliable voting machines in Georgia and Texas have been discovered flipping votes, including cases where (thankfully) double-checking voters discovered that their vote was miscounted if an aging machine was on the wrong angle. The Georgia NAACP is urging state officials to post notices on machines, warning voters of the glitch.
In most, if not all, forecasts claiming to meticulously track the outcome of Election 2016—whether it’s metadata rock star Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight or neuroscientist Sam Wang’s Princeton Election Consortium—none are paying any close attention to the impact the very real and presently active elimination of black and brown votes will have once the ballots are counted.
These are happening in states where Republican-controlled legislatures are thwarting voters of color—who vote overwhelmingly Democrat—instead of simply doing it the old-fashioned way: competing for them.
The mainstream conversation on that seems almost nonexistent despite all the antics described above, with little home page copy devoted to real concerns voting-rights advocates are having about sabotage at the polls.
“We are on the precipice of the most chaotic election for people of color in 50 years,” Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, warned during a recent conference call with reporters. “In fact, this is the first election in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act.”
You’d think that would be a big deal. Many of the states that historically required serious preclearance oversight of their shady election habits by the Justice Department are now battlegrounds that could swing the presidential race, and everything down ballot, one way or the other. They are places packed with black and Latino voters who could be crucial in deciding whether the nation picks its first woman as president—or whether it jumps headfirst into the uncertain abyss of picking a man with an open dictatorial streak, along with a legislative and judicial branch that empowers him. How convenient.
Still, let a narcissistic, loud billionaire white dude claim the American election system is “rigged” against him and you’ll find quite a bit of mainstream speculation and misguided white voters giving him the benefit of the doubt. PolitiFact might rightfully call him “pants on fire” for going there. Yet it’s not enough as volunteers line up to “poll watch.” The RNC tacitly endorses it, and experts like Cambridge’s Josh Weitz argue that it will very well “throw a huge wrench into the process of anointing and accepting a new president.”
But what about the “huge wrench” of GOP-driven voter suppression in key states? How will the actual electoral “rigging” that the nation isn’t talking about influence the race?
It’s hard to say when state election officials from both parties and pluralities of voters themselves (as many as 72 percent, according to a YouGov poll) became more pressed by Donald Trump’s fraudulent “rigged” claim than with the actual Republican rigging tactics that are in their faces. Voter suppression—a combination of voter ID, early-voting elimination, voting-machine malfunctions and polling-place closures—has been a real issue for much of a decade, especially as dozens of states passed slickly designed voter-ID laws. But there wasn’t this much open concern about it, even as the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision turned 50 years of voting-rights law on its head.
“He is actively delegitimizing a legitimate issue,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) tells The Root. “It actually acts as a heavy smoke screen to mask legitimate concerns about aggressive efforts to [keep] black folks from voting.”
Even Johnson says he felt forced to hold back on heavy promotion of his recently introduced and needed Election Integrity Act, a law that would mandate the Department of Homeland Security to designate and protect voting systems as essential infrastructure, fearing that it would be misconstrued as validating Trump’s claims. It’s one example showing just how much the GOP nominee’s dangerous verbal gymnastics have led to the erosion of one too many votes. But when black voters complain about it, the nation won’t listen.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.