Keith Johnstone: Voting while Black in Trump’s America

Sunday, May 10, 2020 - 4:53pm

“Give us the ballot and we will fill our legislative halls with men of good will.” — Martin Luther King Jr. 

As my father drove to the California polls on Election Day in 1988, he heard the local radio broadcaster announce that George Herbert Walker Bush would be the 41st president of the United States. Even though he knew the result, he continued on his 30-minute drive and cast his ballot for Michael Dukakis. When I asked him why he would waste his time like that, he indignantly replied: “Son, our ancestors fought with their lives for the right to vote. The least we can do is sit in traffic and walk into a booth.”

That statement stuck with me as I grew up, because it forced me to remember how much those who came before me sacrificed for my rights. I needed to make their struggle worthwhile by fulfilling my civic duty. Thus, Nov. 8, 2016 shook me to my core — and not because Americans elected a former steak salesman to the presidency. I was shaken because, across the country, my brothers and sisters weren’t voting. Black voter turnout fell 7 percent nationally in 2016 from 2012, but it fell significantly further right in my backyard, the industrial Midwest. Black turnout was down 7.5 percent in Ohio, 12.3 percent in Wisconsin and 12.4 percent in my home state of Michigan in 2016 — all states that Barack Obama had won in 2012. While these people may not have believed that their votes mattered, they effectively made Donald Trump the successor to the first Black president. After seeing the trends in 2016, Trump’s administration, court appointees and Republican cronies have actively sought to deny Black people the voting rights for which our ancestors fought. 

Since 1870, we have had the right to vote regardless of “race, color or previous condition of servitude,” but this did not prevent state governments from taking away that right, through methods like poll taxes and literacy tests. These practices continued until the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which enhanced our right to vote but immediately drew the ire of judicial conservatives who waged war on the law following its inception. 

Enter the Roberts Supreme Court, which in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, invalidated Section 4(b), which reduced the scope of Section 5 of the VRA, opening the floodgates for Republican states to suppress their citizens’ rights. These subsequent efforts have been met with, at best, a shoulder shrug from the court’s justices, especially Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch. In 2018, Gorsuch even said that the Voting Rights Act does not prohibit race-based gerrymandering, which is such an unpopular interpretation that it has only been echoed by fellow Justice Clarence Thomas. 

Ohio Secretary of State, Frank LaRose, a member of Trump’s inauguration team, took the Court’s decided conservatism and Trump’s election as a signal to begin purging the voter rolls. Upon his 2018 election, LaRose ordered the state’s 88 county election boards to begin purging more than 460,000 voters from the state’s rolls. However, once the flawed process garnered scrutiny for erroneously purging thousands of Ohioans from the state’s most diverse areas, LaRose backtracked, calling their system “unacceptably messy.” Though these voters’ registrations have since been restored, the state of Ohio has not taken any additional actions to make sure that further such “software glitch(es)” will not occur.

In 2020, following Ohio’s lead, Wisconsin’s Board of Elections released a list of nearly 209,000 voters whom they will purge from the rolls, most of whom vote Democratic. However, the board’s Democrats delayed those purges until after the 2020 election. Then, liking their chances in the court system, Republicans filed a suit to force Wisconsin to purge the rolls immediately. While actively litigated in the courts, the board’s Republicans have ramped up the rhetoric, calling Democrats’ efforts “terribly disgusting” and disparaging the outrageous process.

Now, Republicans in these states have argued that these restrictions are necessary to maintain accurate voter rolls and prevent voter fraud in accordance with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. While the law was written to make voter registration easier, its provision empowering states to maintain accurate voter rolls has given wide discretion to Secretaries of State; some of whom have abused this vast power in the name of “election security.” 

Now, don’t get me wrong, the integrity of our elections is a valid concern, as they are core to our democracy. However, the in-person ballot fraud rate is between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent, which is about nowhere near the level that could potentially affect a Detroit City Council race, nevermind a national election. Further, restrictive voter ID laws have disenfranchised minority and young voters with almost surgical precision because these voters are less likely to have “valid identification,” which somehow includes a gun license but not a student ID. From restrictive voter ID laws in Texas to blocking 53,000 new voter registrations in Georgia to the aforementioned suppression in Wisconsin and Ohio, Republicans in certain states have shown us all one thing — they’re scared of our votes, and, quite frankly, I understand why. 

On Jan. 20, 2009, my whole family gathered to watch a charismatic Black man with a wide grin and funny ears take the oath of office. Though I was only nine, I took in the moment and thought for the first time that one day I could be the president of the greatest country on Earth. As he uttered those famous words, the room erupted in applause, as did the National Mall because we saw that when Black people unite together to fight against the system, we can accomplish previously unimaginable feats. On Nov. 3, 2020, we need to speak strongly with our votes to turn the page on the Trump era, and we can only do that by actively registering ourselves and our neighbors to ensure that we can exercise the rights for which our ancestors died.

Keith Johnstone can be reached at keithja@umich.edu