You can’t fight a war on voting rights by compromising 

click to enlarge Protesters in Atlanta.

Raymond Richards /

Protesters in Atlanta.

By the end of the 19th century, Wilmington was North Carolina's most populous city, and as a shipping hub, among its most prosperous, too. It was an unusual place: majority Black, with a thriving Black middle class and — most important — a multiracial government.

"This was a primal threat to white supremacy," the journalist David Zucchino told me last year.

As Zucchino details in his book Wilmington's Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, two days after the November 1898 election — which state Democrats won through fraud, violence, and fearmongering about "Black beasts" raping white women — a mob of more than 2,000 white men descended on Wilmington and executed the only successful coup d'état in American history.

They murdered at least 60 African Americans, forced 2,100 Black residents to flee, and ordered the resignations of local officials. No one tried to stop them, and no one was punished.

Having reclaimed the legislature from the moderate Fusionists, white supremacists cracked down on Black voting rights. In 1896, North Carolina had 126,000 Black registered voters; six years later, 6,000.

Other Southern states copied North Carolina. For the next seven decades — until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — Southern Blacks were excluded from political power.

Fifty-eight years later, writing for a 5–4 Supreme Court in 2013's Shelby v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts declared that "things have changed dramatically" — "voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African Americans attained political office in record numbers" — so the VRA section requiring Southern states to get approval from the Justice Department before changing voting laws was unconstitutional.

Roberts dismissed the Obama administration's argument that without the preclearance requirement states would revert to their old tricks. Which is exactly what happened.

And so last Thursday, surrounded by white men in suits and seated under a painting of a slave plantation, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed the most blatant attack on Black voting rights in a generation, while a Black woman lawmaker was arrested for knocking on the door to the room where Kemp was signing the bill.

These are optics the Republican Party will come to regret.

Kemp narrowly won his election in 2018 against Stacey Abrams, a Black woman, after — as Georgia secretary of state — he engaged in egregious voter suppression. The law he signed, which reversed rules the Republican legislature had previously enacted, exists because Black people used those rules to defeat his political allies.

Georgia Republicans said they wanted to ensure "election integrity," though no evidence of fraud has emerged. Sure, Kraken lawyer Sidney Powell filed fanciful lawsuits alleging all sorts of wild-ass conspiracies, but faced with a $1.3 billion defamation suit, she said "no reasonable person" should have believed her. (That, at least, is true.) Former President Trump similarly made all sorts of claims — when he wasn't threatening and cajoling the state's elections officials — but these, too, were obvious fictions.

A bunch of white folks solved a fake problem, and people of color will pay the price. Funny how that happens.

The law adds pointless but burdensome ID requirements for absentee voting and limits the use of drop boxes to collect ballots. It forbids the use of mobile voting vans like the ones Fulton County used. It allows poll watchers to challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters and requires county elections boards to hold a hearing on those challenges within 10 days. (No way that gets abused.) It makes it a crime to give food or water to voters waiting in the long lines that always seem to wrap around Black precincts.

Most chillingly, it allows the legislature to overrule local elections boards. In other words, the next time there's a close race, Republican state officials want to be able to rush into Black metro counties, hallucinate about fraud, and refuse to certify the election.

Without Shelby, this law never would've seen the light of day.

This is, of course, part of a pattern — not just the hundreds of voting restrictions making their way through Republican legislatures across the country, but a pattern of Republican government over the last two decades. As political scientist Jacob Grumbach shows in a new working paper, "Republican control of state government ... dramatically reduces states' democratic performance during this period."

In 2000, North Carolina and Wisconsin ranked among the most democratic states in the country. After both states were taken over by Republicans beginning in 2010, their democracy scores plummeted, as Republicans employed strict voter-ID laws and aggressive gerrymanders to solidify their power. Today — like the GOP-controlled Alabama, Ohio, and Tennessee — they've fallen to the bottom of the barrel.

"The contemporary Republican Party is a coalition of the very wealthy, some major industries, and an electoral base motivated in no small part by white identity politics," Grumbach writes, "which each have incentives to limit the expansion of the electorate to new voters with very different racial attitudes and class interests."

If there's one benefit to Georgia's attack on voting rights, it's that it will serve as a direct challenge to Senate Democrats. The For the People Act would be a much-needed check on anti-democratic voting laws. But passing it will require Democrats to both ditch the filibuster and find 50 votes for the legislation.

That means that someone will need to explain reality to Joe Manchin. "We need to come around holistically on a voting rights bill because we had an insurrection," he told CNN. "It was over voting. And now you're about ready to put a divisive bill that'd be going down along party lines, and you already want to scrap the filibuster completely?"

Actually, yes. See, Joe, when one party is willing to destroy democracy for its own benefit, you can't count on them to be part of a democratic solution. See, for example, Wilmington, 1898.

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