What Are We Going to Do About Voter Suppression?

A Conversation with Jim Downs, Carol Anderson, Heather Ann Thompson, Kevin Kruse,
Heather Cox Richardson, and Stacey Abrams

In April of 2019, six historians and commentators on American politics gathered at the historic Library of Company in Philadelphia to discuss voter suppression. In 2013, the Supreme Court eliminated protections provided by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had prohibited racial discrimination in voting. The Voting Rights Act had required states, mostly in the South, to get federal approval for any changes that they made to voting regulations, but the court’s ruling no longer required this pre-clearance. As a result, many states have recently created various laws that have suppressed the vote. The following conversation is part of a longer dialogue that has been published as a book, Voter Suppression in US Elections.


Jim Downs: When people see HUD buses arriving to the polls on the news, it then makes voting among poor black people appear as a privilege, not as a right.

Carol Anderson: John Merrill, who is the secretary of state in Alabama, has called it a privilege, as has Kris Kobach, the secretary of state out of Kansas, so you’re looking at a couple of the kings of voter suppression who look at a right as a privilege. And so the recording dealt with, there was a law dealing with something like gambling or something, and so they were trying to figure out how to maneuver this thing through and shut it down, and they said, “How do we depress the black voter turn-out? Because all of these aborigines and these illiterates will get on these HUD-financed buses and go to the polls.” And I think that’s important to understand because one of the things that we’re dealing with when we’re dealing with voter suppression is a stereotypical narrative about who black people are.

Kevin Kruse and Jim Downs: Right.

Anderson: So that’s why when they talk about “stealing the election,” they point to cities. They point to St. Louis. Trump pointed to Philadelphia. This is where they’re pointing. Because in cities in our national imagination, cities are where black people are, and this is where crime is, and so when you have stealing elections, black people, crime, it just seems to work together psychologically.

Downs: Right.

Anderson: So again, this “HUD-financed busses,” “oh, they’re on welfare, they’re getting a handout,” and this gets to “well, why don’t they have enough initiative to just go vote?” So you see these components in there. So what they did in Alabama is—they did many things in Alabama and we’ll get to moral turpitude—


Anderson: So what they did in Alabama was they crafted a voter ID law in 2011, but they knew that it was so racist that it could not get through the Department of Justice preclearance review. Then Shelby County v. Holder came through and gutted the Voting Rights Act and gutted preclearance and [snaps fingers], boom, they implemented that voter ID law. Now when they implemented it, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund looked at it because it said you need to have government-issued photo ID, and they looked, and they said, “Yes, but we see you don’t have public-housing ID on this list, and does it get more government issued than public housing?”

Downs: Right.

Anderson: And Alabama’s retort was “no, that’s not an acceptable form of government-issued photo ID.” But in Alabama— because Alabama is a very poor state, it’s somewhere between 45th and 48th in the nation in terms of poverty—71 percent of those in public housing are African American, and as the Legal Defense Fund noted, for many, that’s the only ID they have. They don’t have cars; cars are expensive, and if you are poor, you can’t afford a car.

Downs: Right.

Anderson: So when you cancel the one ID, the one government-issued photo ID that people have, then you are blocking their access to the ballot box, but you’re doing so in a way where you don’t have to be Sheriff Jim Clark. Then Governor [Robert] Bentley shut down the Department of Motor Vehicles in the black belt counties, which are the counties where you have sizable numbers of African Americans living. So if you can’t use your government-issued photo ID from public housing, and you don’t have a driver’s license bureau to get the driver’s license to be able to vote, so you have to go like 50 miles to be able to get a driver’s license, but if you don’t drive—and Alabama is ranked 48th in the nation in terms of public transportation—so if you don’t drive, and you don’t have public transportation, how do you then get the driver’s license that you need in order to be able to vote? And so this is why it is such, what I call this kind of quiet slow burn, because you don’t see it but these very quiet bureaucratic mechanisms that are really undergirded—and this is one of the pieces I think we need to pull out here—it’s really undergirded by what happened to the Republican Party with the southern strategy.

Downs: That’s my next question.

Heather Ann Thompson: But I also think it’s really important to put the actors back into this process, because one of the problems of talking about it in terms of Supreme Court decisions or local ordinances is it seems even less real—it seems even less vibrant— and, you know, the violence that’s committed by doing those acts is violence. When you refused to concede, that was calling it for what it was, and I think we still—again the public but I think even historians—we have a hard time . . . if someone is not saying, “We’re not going to take this ID because we hate black people,” even as historians . . .

Kruse: Yeah. downs: Yeah.

Thompson: We have a hard time being able to connect those dots without a lot of inference, and that’s where this is so critical that we point out that those kind of acts, they’re not benign. They’re not banal. They’re not just “happening,” passive-voice happening—there’s actors that are making them happen.

Anderson: Yes, yes.

Thompson: And that in fact, if we had everyone voting in Alabama, that the most fundamental power relations would be completely upended.

Anderson: Ooo.

Heather Cox Richardson: In terms of class . . .

Anderson: Ooo.

Thompson: And race . . .

Anderson: Hoo!

Thompson: And gender, it would look exactly like it did in the fifties or the sixties because you would see dead people, and you would see arms, because that’s what’s at stake, and I think not . . . for us to not keep calling out what’s at stake here is one of the biggest silences of all.

Richardson: Can I build on that though? There’s something even larger at stake, and that’s American democracy.

Anderson: Yes.

Richardson: Because we’re all talking as if people should vote, but obviously the people that don’t want certain other people to vote are not behind the project of democracy. One of the things you said earlier is about assumptions people make and that assumptions are within the system. People who have created legislation have done it in such a way that it automatically reads some people out, and we are not even aware of that. So for example, right now we’re talking about African Americans, but the Fourteenth Amendment excluded Indians not taxed.

Kruse: Mmhmm.

Anderson: Yes.

Richardson: And that was quite deliberate. And then in the Fifteenth Amendment, Nevada said, “We won’t have anything to do with the Fifteenth Amendment until we make sure that it doesn’t cover Chinese and Indians.”

Anderson: Exactly.

Richardson: And then across the West, they were like, “Oh sure, we’re totally cool with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment; that’s no problem at all,” because in 1798 through 1802 we wrote all these citizenship laws that said only free white people could be citizens, so then you’ve just written off all the Indians, all the Asians, and usually the Mexicans.

Anderson: Yes.

Kruse: Mmhmm.

Richardson: And that whole idea that people—you talked about being “good citizens” so you would go and do these things—the idea that only certain people are Americans.

Anderson: Yes.

Richardson: And those ideas are based on color, gender, almost always class, and certain ways of behavior and are deeply, deeply encoded in American law and in American ideology.

Anderson: Yes.

Richardson: And so when we talk about specific laws need to be challenged, well, great, let’s challenge a few laws, but that’s not the point. The point is we need . . . not even necessarily a new language because there is at least one occasion in which we had it before—we had it during the Civil War and we had it during World War II—we need to revive the idea that democracy really does need to stand against fascism and communism, and it’s going to create a world in which everybody has the right to self-determination. And until people buy into that . . . well, let’s tinker with laws but . . .

Thompson: Well, that’s why . . . voter suppression, which often doesn’t bring people along because it’s fundamentally about race, but it’s also, as you just pointed out, it’s so much bigger than that. True, right? I mean, if you’re transgender, you are likely not going to vote because of your ID problems; if you are married and took your spouse’s last name . . .

Anderson: Mmm.

Richardson: You’re out!

Kruse: Right.

Thompson: You are unlikely to be able to vote. I mean, in fact, it is suppressing all of . . . honestly the most marginalized citizens in society.

Richardson: How about the majority!

Thompson: One second. So by talking about it as a democracy, it also forces us to talk about suppression even more broadly.

Anderson: One of the things that I laid out in the 2016 election epilogue in White Rage was that what Trump was marketing was a neo-apartheid state, where you could create a vast labor pool of rightless people—of African Americans by using the police force so that as you rise up for your rights, you’re dealing with massive police violence; for the Latino population by the pressure of ice and deportation so that as you rise up, you’re then dealing with the power of the state—so once you create this rightless, cowed population of labor that is doing that work, those resources that they generate then flow up to a category of whites. But what happened in that election is folks thought they were in on the con, and they were actually the mark, because it is a very narrowed band of whites that were to benefit from this system. But that was the vision, that was the drive, that was the pool.

When Steve King out of Iowa—congressman out of Iowa—says, “You know, there were times when you used to have to own property to be able to vote,” you’re beginning to see the conception of what citizenship looks like. Particularly when you think about what happened after the Great Recession and what happened to black ownership of property, where fewer than 50 percent of African Americans owned a home. So when you start talking about owning property to be a citizen in order to be able to vote, you don’t have to say race . . .

Richardson: Yes, that’s exactly right.

Anderson: Because it’s said. And so these are the kind of layers—it’s “not the public-housing ID, but you have to have a driver’s license,” or in North Dakota it’s “your ID has to have an address on it,” knowing good and doggone well that those who live on reservations do not have street addresses. So you write the code in a way to define citizens, and that’s what’s happening. So that’s why what happened in Florida with that incredible ballot initiative, issue 4, was so tremendous.

Kruse: Yeah.

Anderson: Because, as Heather said, you had 6.2 million Americans who had lost their right to vote because they had been disfranchised because of a felony conviction.

Downs: Right.

Anderson: 1.7 million of them were in Florida alone.

Thompson: That’s right.

Anderson: So when 1.7 million . . . And so this allows Florida to basically have what I call like the three-fifths compromise, where they’re counting the folks in order to get the representatives in Congress.

Thompson: And we’re not even talking about prison gerrymandering, which is a whole separate issue.

Anderson: Exactly.

Thompson: In all of the . . . in all but four states.

Anderson: Right, right, and so, what this did, though, is that you have the people saying . . . you know when Rick Scott as governor then really rigged the system to slow down reenfranchisement to a dribble.

Kruse: Right.

Anderson: Then you have the people going, “Okay, we have tried it your way—it’s not working. We are going to have some real democracy up in this house.” And they began to organize and got that initiative through and got, what, 64 percent?

Kruse: Amazing.

Thompson: Wow.

Kruse: Yeah, I couldn’t believe the numbers when they rolled in.

Anderson: Right, 64 percent of the vote in order to reenfranchise 1.4 million Floridians.

Downs: Right.

Anderson: Think about what a game changer that is, particularly in a swing state like Florida. But this is . . . it’s to say, “A dying mule kicks hardest,” so you’re now looking at the legislature now coming back and saying, “But you’ve got to pay all of your court fees and fines.”

Kruse: Right.

Richardson: Mmm.

Thompson: Right.

Anderson: So you’ve got, basically.

Kruse and Anderson: A poll tax!

Downs: Yeah.

Thompson: That’s right.

Richardson: Can you explain a bit more about prison gerrymandering and the felony stuff?

Thompson: So we talk all the time about felony disfranchisement, and that tends to be where especially the media spends most of its attention, if it’s going to spend any at all, on the issue of voter suppression these days. But in countless counties, states, areas, there are . . . there’s an in some respects to me a much more insidious kind of voter suppression going on that is much more like the three-fifths clause: prison gerrymandering. So take my city of Detroit: when folks are arrested in the overwhelmingly black city of Detroit, they are then shipped to an upstate Michigan prison, in an overwhelmingly white upstate county, where their body counts for census population in that upstate county. This has huge implications. It’s a double whammy.

Not only can these people not vote while locked in that upstate prison (like they can in other countries such as Albania, Denmark, Serbia, or Spain), but their bodies adding to the census count of that upstate county actually gives the white residents of that county a disproportionate political advantage. It gives them more political power than they actually merit given the one-person, one-vote rule. Also, there are other key resources that are attached to census population, right? Higher census numbers equals more federal and state monies for things like child nutrition programs. That matters a lot. When Detroit fell below a million people—when any area falls below a million people—that’s devastating financially in the census. So everyone talks about white flight out of Detroit—well, that’s a very real thing, but they’re not talking about the fact that mass incarceration also emptied out this city . . . I think out of nine or eight of the counties that most people return to from prison, it’s in Wayne County, which is Detroit.

Anderson: Mmhmm.

Thompson: So this form of voter suppression, as hidden as it  is, all adds up, essentially, to a very real sucking of power and resources out of our nation’s most marginalized areas to its already privileged areas. It’s literally the case that every black body in a northern Michigan prison directly empowers white guards. They have more political power to get their candidate in office.

Richardson: When did that start?

Thompson: Well, we’ve always counted prisoners as census population where they are locked up, not where they live . . . This is not new. But when it really began to distort our democracy, it’s only become such a problem, in lieu of mass incarceration.

Richardson: Right.

Anderson: Mmhmm.

Thompson: And again, this has a dramatic impact . . . I mean, in Pennsylvania key House and Senate districts would not exist if it weren’t for prison gerrymandering. They wouldn’t exist! It would violate the one-person, one-vote law. Same thing with other states. I think Michigan it’s, like, four of them. Georgia, what’s Georgia’s?

Stacey Abrams: So, we have . . . and it gets even worse because we have private prisons.

Kruse: Mmhmm.

Abrams: So there are a handful of counties in South Georgia where there would be a sparse population but for the prisoners and the guards.

Anderson: Mmhmm.

Abrams: In certain parts of Georgia, counties have a small population, particularly in South Georgia. In these rural counties, where you see substantive depopulation, they will not access resources but for a rigged census count. I just launched an organization called Fair Count because we won’t be able to address the challenges there until we undo the structure of the legislature. But the only counterweight is to increase the counts in those communities, so going into a place like Detroit or Atlanta and making certain that the census count is accurate because the hardest-to-count populations are immigrants, people of color, the poor, renters, and children, all the communities that require the highest amount of resources for their sufficiency to be made real and manifest, and thus they are the very same folks who are the victims of disenfranchisement.

Kruse: Mmhmm.

Richardson: Right.

Abrams: Because it’s all of the piece.

Thompson: Right, but, for example, in Michigan, you don’t lose your right to vote when you come home, so people think, “Oh, Michigan is in a much better position,” but it actually isn’t, because of its prison gerrymandering. So that’s an example of . . . it’s a second layer of the whole voter suppression thing that no one talks about, and it’s complicated, I mean, because it really is state based. New York had prison gerrymandering too; it had a dramatic impact in Upstate New York, and Republican state legislators would say very publicly, “You know it’s a good thing prisoners can’t vote ’cause if they could they wouldn’t vote for me.”


voter suppression in us elections, jim downs

Excerpted from Voter Suppression in U.S. Elections, Stacey Abrams, Carol Anderson, Kevin M. Kruse, Heather Cox Richardson and Heather Ann Thompson in conversation with Jim Downs. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, University of Georgia Press. 

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