There are plenty of clichéd metaphors we apply to elections and warfare.
Getting out the vote is the “ground war,” hotly contested states are “battleground states” and any campaign commercial in which candidates aren’t hugging each other is an “attack ad.”
And there’s another cliché to add to the mix that’s never been more apparent than in this year’s midterm elections: With control of the U.S. Senate within the grasp of Republicans for the first time in almost a decade, the “cold war” of voting has suddenly gone “hot.” And if you look across the nation, African Americans are the most likely to get burned.
A cold war is a passive-aggressive war. For years the United States and the Soviet Union fought each other indirectly, through proxy wars in Africa, South America and Asia, through rock-and-roll songs and the Olympics. Eventually President Ronald Reagan just called Russia the evil empire and things went hot in the 1980s.
Likewise, the war on voting—or, perhaps more precisely, the war on black voting—had been cold for years, and the blatantly racist chants of politicians seeking to suppress black votes had given way to subtleties like racial gerrymandering by Republican and Democratic incumbents, voting-machine fraud and paying off pastors on Sundays. No one came out and said, “We have to stop blacks from voting,” but all that changed once President Barack Obama was elected twice by a coalition of voters no one had ever seen before. Young people, Asian Americans, Latinos and African Americans turning out at higher rates than any other racial group in the country scared the hell out of Republicans who feared a stable voting bloc that might turn blue states indigo and red states purple.
After 2012, suddenly the GOP was concerned about “voter fraud,” and swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida passed laws intended to suppress the vote. In the last month alone, backed by a right-leaning Supreme Court, early voting has been curtailed in Ohio and onerous voter-identification laws have been upheld in Wisconsin. But nowhere has the war on voting been more apparent than in the state of Georgia.
Making John Lewis Angry
In September, Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp launched an investigation directed at a nonpartisan voter-registration organization, the New Georgia Project, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), speaking at an Atlanta press conference on Monday, knew exactly why. “There is a systematic and deliberate attempt on the part of some states,” Lewis charged, “to limit the vote of minorities, seniors and young people. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona … it violates the spirit of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”
Georgia’s growing African-American and Latino populations, along with an influx of young people from the Northeast, has turned it into a “trending purple” state in Democratic circles. Obama got more votes in Georgia in 2008 and 2012 than President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore or former Sen. John Kerry did when they ran for president.
Encouraged by these trends, Democrats have fielded a record five African-American female candidates for statewide office. In addition, the governor’s race between Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, and the Senate race between Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue, have been neck and neck all summer. A historic win in any of these races puts Georgia within Democrats’ sights for 2016.
With so much at stake, the forces of voting oppression had to get busy to cover their Southern flank. The New Georgia Project registered more than 85,000 new voters and submitted the applications to the Georgia secretary of state’s office in April 2014 in time for the May primaries, but none of those voting applications were processed in time for the primaries. And with early voting starting in a week, more than 40,000 registrations still have not been processed.
After months of the New Georgia Project asking for an explanation for the delays, Kemp responded in September—by slapping them with an injunction based on 25 “fraudulent” applications his office found. It doesn’t take a voting-war vet like Lewis to figure this out. Georgia Republicans got blindsided by 85,000 new Democratic registrations in a midterm year, and now the secretary of state is playing Bull Connor to stop them from voting.
Republicans are “just scared because they just found out we quietly registered 100,000 single women, blacks, Asians and Latinos right under their noses and they didn’t see it coming. Now they’re throwing the book at us at the last minute,” says a voting-rights activist who asked to remain nameless. It’s hardly a far-fetched conclusion.
Losing Battles and Losing Wars
It would be great to end on an optimistic note about the tide of war on voting, but the reality is that the forces of voter suppression and disenfranchisement are winning. Last-minute voter-ID laws in Ohio, Wisconsin and other states won’t be legally changed in time for November elections. That means more Republican statehouses and, likely, a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate during President Obama’s last two years in office.
If there’s any good news, it’s that, in the long term, this is a losing strategy for Republicans that will backfire in 2016. It’s easy to discriminate against poor people, blacks and college kids and get away with it. But when a wave of middle-class, swing-voting white women want to vote two weeks early for Hillary Clinton, voting restrictions will be a much harder sell for the public.
For now, the only way to counter the war on voters is to go out and vote—against elected officials who seek to restrict early voting and against elected officials who target students, minorities and seniors. This fall, regardless of your party affiliation, if you are eligible to vote, you’re a target in this war, and the best way not to end up a casualty is to go into the booth and pull the lever.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.