The “New” Disfranchisement
By Winnett Hagens and Ellen Spears
Vol. 20, No. 3, 1998 pp. 3-4
Because the core premise of a democratic society is that legitimate rule is based on the consent of the governed, the linchpin of our democratic order is fair representation. And fair representation begins with access to the ballot. In an intentionally democratic system like ours, rules about who is allowed to vote inevitably affect who gets what.
In American history, outright disfranchisement has been one of the most common tactics employed by propertied interests seeking to protect their advantages. Nowhere has disfranchisement worked better to preserve and entrench rule by a narrow segment of privilege and wealth in American society than its use in the South following Reconstruction. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, white elites began building what V.O. Key in his 1949 book Southern Politics called “the most impressive systems of obstacles between the voter and the ballot box known to the democratic world.” Since readers of Southern Changes are familiar with the inventory of ballot obstructions (literacy tests, poll taxes, all white primaries, etc.) instituted under segregation, the subject needs no elaboration here.
By today’s standards, those methods of outright disfranchisement-the “old” or traditional disfranchisement-are crude and blunt mechanisms of control. The “old” disfranchisement simply stole and denied the right to vote. The “new” disfranchisement gives people the vote, and in doing so it breathes life into the illusion of a society based on consent. This “new” disfranchisement steals from the voters not their ballots but their choice of candidates and representatives. It also steals the power of the vote through dilution. Taylor Branch, in his book , captured the essence of the “new” disfranchisement when he quoted civil rights worker Bob Moses in 1964: “The best way to keep someone a slave is to give him the vote and call him free.”
Camouflage-concealing the potent and polarizing influence of race and money in politics-is the distinctive feature of the “new” disfranchisement, which we examine in this issue of Southern Changes. The “new” disfranchisement is not enforced by police with billy clubs and tear gas. Voter intimidation persists, as witnessed in the multi-faceted assault on the use of absentee ballots and black political power in Greene County, Alabama. (See “Voting Rights on Trial Again in Alabama,” by veteran activist Anne Braden, Summer 1998, Southern Changes.) Yet, even where such intimidation is absent, having a vote feels utterly pointless for voters if they have little or no hope of using it to protect their interests. The willful retreat from justice in voting rights is a classic case in point.
“The simple fact is that virtually all districts in which whites are a majority elect white candidates…. For blacks to win,” wrote Lisa Handley and Bernard Grofman in the 1994 book Quiet Revolution in the South, “it is therefore still necessary in the South to draw districts in which blacks are a majority or a supermajority of the population.” Even though it is beyond dispute that African Americans and Latinos have almost no chance of electing community-based candidates of their choice without district geographies holding a preponderance of their voters, federal courts have repeatedly rejected districts where race is a major factor as unconstitutional. The courts’ rulings in the 1993 Shaw case and its progeny are “racially unfair and nearly unmanageable,” explains Laughlin McDonald in his article, “Redistricting at the Millenium,” quoting Supreme Court dissenters who point out that the recent rulings disadvantage the very group they were designed to help.
When the smoke screen of litigation lifts, we are left with a legacy no carefully crafted electoral remedy can circumvent, the enduring fact of white racial bloc voting. “Until racial bloc voting diminishes, black-majority congressional districts are one appropriate and necessary means of ensuring that black candidates are afforded an equal opportunity to compete for-not win-office,” argues Harvard public policy professor Keith Reeves in “When a Black Face Turns Away White Votes.” Reeves shares his innovative research on media messages and white racial bloc voting in an excerpt from his 1997 book,“Voting Hopes or Fears?: White Voters, Black Candidates and Racial Politics in America.”
Sometimes circumstances-whether court rulings or geographical dispersion-preclude the use of districting as a leveling mechanism. In “Monopoly Politics: Southern Style,” Center for Voting and Democracy Director Rob Richie explores an alternate route to fair representation for minorities, suggesting proportional representation as one way out of low turnout, uncontested elections and the limits of the winner-take-all system. Proportional systems are in effect in more than 200 localities in the U.S., including a number of communities in Alabama and Texas. They work to enfranchise any political minority-whether a racial or ethnic group, or a political party.
Of course, unless and until such systems enjoy more widespread use, incumbent politicians control the redistricting process. Allan Lichtman shares his predictions of
expanded Republican power in the South after the November elections and the attendant consequences for the 2000 Census and the redistricting to follow.
In a special section, we explore what competes with race as a powerful disfranchising mechanism-Money in Politics-and the growing movement to curb its influence. Huge and growing sums of money are now required to capture public office. Any candidate reaching the ballot in today’s world has already been pre-selected by an invisible “wealth primary,” a “new-old” method of exclusion from decision-making. Advocates Randy Kehler, Sharon Basco, Gwen Patton, Stephanie Anthony and Pete McDowell outline what’s at stake in this democratic fight for Clean Money and Clean Elections.
Criminal disfranchisement laws, the denial of the right to vote of people convicted of crimes have a disproportionate impact on African American males. Earl Shinhoster questions the unequal effect of these laws, with 1.4 million (one in seven) black men denied the right to vote due to present or prior felony convictions.
Jim Blacksher brings us back to the starting point: our society’s legitimacy rests on the consent of the governed. Wholesale disfranchisement, delivered through unjust voting rights decisions, criminal disfranchisement laws, and the power of money, plainly contradicts the principle of consent. In departing from this principle, he says, the Shaw majority “would make interracial legislative dialogue constitutionally illegitimate and black political influence once again impotent.”
Sadly, calls for genuine interracial dialogue have been all but buried in what passes for governance these days. The success of that interracial political dialogue requires fair representation of political interests-in a system that disfranchises no one.
Winnett Hagens is director of Fair Representation Programs and Ellen Spears is communications director at the Southern Regional Council.