To counteract racial politics, Congress must protect federal voting rights for all
History and politics march most easily down familiar pathways. In electing Republican Glenn Youngkin on Nov. 2 , Virginia voters followed their decades-long habit of picking governors from the opposite party of the president. More dangerous was the election’s other familiar pattern, the winner’s veiled, negative messaging around race. If we fail to focus on it, we can miss the counter-balance that is urgently needed — vigilant protection of voting rights for all.
Anti-black campaign messaging camouflaged in socially acceptable terminology has long been a mainstay of Republican electoral politics. Ian Haney-Lopez, author of “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” has said that appealing to white fear and bias “has been a concerted GOP strategy since 1963.”
And in a close election like Virginia’s, racial dog whistles can provide the winning margin. Youngkin laundered his racial message through a wash of fabrication. Politifact rated “false” his hammered campaign theme that Critical Race Theory (CRT) was being taught in the Commonwealth’s public schools.
In the Fox-Republican echo chamber, CRT became oft-repeated code for anti-white discrimination. Voters got the drift. Exhibit A is the white Virginian captured on pre-election video saying that the key issue was “teaching Critical Race Theory.” When asked what CRT was, he admitted that he didn’t “know much about it,” but he knew he “didn’t like it.”
Euphemisms sanitizing racial bias in pursuit of power have deep roots in America’s political past. During Jim Crow’s reign, Southern states adopted innocent-sounding “grandfather clauses” in their voting laws. Those provisions exempted anyone whose grandparents had qualified to vote — that is, white people — from poll taxes and literacy tests, disenfranchising only Black citizens whose ancestors were slaves prohibited from voting.
In 1968, Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” peeled the Old South from its traditional Democratic Party bearings by emphasizing “law and order,” code words for clamping down on Black criminals. Reagan used “state’s rights” and “the War on Drugs.”
Then, of course, there’s Donald Trump. In January 2018, he lamented that the U.S. had so many immigrants from “shithole countries” like Haiti and wished for more Norwegians. CRT is 2021’s sanitized proxy for Trump’s cruder appeal.
In American politics, these racial siren songs to segments of the white electorate are not going away. The best we can do is to balance them by ensuring an even playing field for all constituencies, including Blacks. On a field that’s level, let the majority win.
The fundamental principle of even-handed elections is equal access to the ballot box. Voting is how citizens elect a government that safeguards their family’s health care, jobs, and children’s food security. Fair access to the ballot will depend on the fate in coming weeks of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, both pending in Congress.
The first measure overrides 2021 voter suppression laws adopted by 19 Republican legislatures to control future elections by enacting restrictive voting laws based on Trump’s “Big Lie” — that voter fraud denied him re-election. The second measure will restore Congress’s 1965 Voting Rights Act, gutted in 2013 and 2021 by the conservative Supreme Court. Immediately after the 2013 decision, states with histories of voting discrimination against Blacks enacted new voting restrictions, resulting in a sharp drop in minority participation.
Republicans believe to win in 2024’s presidential battleground states, that in addition to racial messaging to their white base, they need to diminish the power of minority voters who helped elect Joe Biden. Hence, on Nov. 3, Senate Republicans blocked a vote on the John Lewis Act. On Nov. 4, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he’d be seeking another legislative package to advance more voting restrictions.
Still, there is good news for those who believe in the equal opportunity to cast their ballot.
More Senate Democrats are willing to reform Senate filibuster rules to allow the passage of the Lewis Act and the Freedom to Vote Act by simple majorities, rather than requiring a 60-40 vote. On Nov. 5, Delaware Democratic Sen. Tom Carper announced his support for such reform to ensure every citizen’s right to choose representatives who may determine the bread-and-butter issues in their lives. There is also a shift reported among other Senators moving in the same direction.
Citizens who understand that every person’s well-being depends on the freedom to vote should make their voices heard. Senators such as Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-ariz.) have not yet committed to passage by simple majority vote of the John Lewis Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. They need to know where Americans who don’t care for racial dog whistles stand.
Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor.