Convergence / Politics / Vol. 1 No. 3-4

The U.S. Vote: Control. Fault. Delete.

Thomas Nast The Negro at the Ballot Box

Image Credit: Thomas Nast, “The Georgetown Election—The Negro at the Ballot-Box,” Harper’s Weekly XI, no. 533 (March 16, 1867), 172. The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Over time, voter suppression as political praxis has produced variously sophisticated means of keeping African Americans and others away from exercising the franchise. Even gerrymandering—the redrawing of electoral districts to produce an outcome favoring one political party and a quite ordinary way of cooking the vote—today seems passé. This notion can probably be proven by the recent victory of untried Democrat Conor Lamb over incumbent Republican Rick Saccone for a U.S. House seat in Pennsylvania’s 18th District in a special election in March of this year—a contest with electoral boundaries more reasonably drawn by the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court, thus undoing even by a small margin Saccone’s incumbency.1 In another special election in November 2017, where gerrymandering was unnecessary in reliably crimson Alabama, for example, Doug Jones, the Democrat, narrowly beat Roy Moore, the Republican, dogged as he was by a predatory past. Even in this atmosphere, however, Jones’s win was not assured. With the Supreme Court’s dismantling of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, states with the longest histories of voting discrimination, such as Alabama, no longer had to undergo federal scrutiny to approve what might be legitimate voting changes, small irregularities that might appear in any vote count. In a 5-4 decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent that:

All told, between 1982 and 2006, DOJ [Department of Justice] objections blocked over 700 voting changes based on a determination that the changes were discriminatory […] Congress found that the majority of DOJ objections included findings of discriminatory intent, and that the changes blocked by preclearance were ‘calculated decisions to keep minority voters from fully participating in the political process.’ […] On top of that, over the same time period the DOJ and private plaintiffs succeeded in more than 100 actions to enforce the Section 5 preclearance requirements.2

Ultimately, the dissent was that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments encompassed the protections rendered by the Voting Rights Act, but the world-weary tone of a Ginsburg who knows the political game all too well betrays the majority’s injudicious disallowance of the protections she describes. Nevertheless, the Alabama election was characterized by a vigorous get-out-the-vote effort undertaken by the local Democratic Party that helped to secure an abundance of Democratic voters, including large numbers of African Americans throughout the state who knew Moore’s racial intolerance intimately. (They and other Alabamians were soon to know about his lascivious and abusive behavior with young women.) For its own version of taking two steps back, however, the Alabama House responded in January of 2018 by voting to end special elections.3

The significance of voting in the United States in 2016 is that it was the first U.S. presidential election without the fifty-year protection of the Voting Rights Act.4 While gerrymandering, poll taxes, and racial violence, among other impediments , would be present, although not crucial to the outcome of that election, the result was anything but expected. The vote was successfully suppressed in fourteen states; in North Carolina, Arizona, Texas, and other states with a long history of voting irregularities, there were 868 fewer polling places, and in North Carolina alone, black turnout decreased by sixteen percent, with 158 fewer polling places in forty heavily black counties.5

Of course, black voting disenfranchisment in the United States is a hoary and time-honored enterprise whose roots are to be found not only in the infamy of the Constitution’s Three-Fifths Compromise, but also in the use of that measure as a tool to tighten the final bolt in the machinery of the Electoral College, which decided the election of 1800 for Thomas Jefferson, its architect, over John Adams by a scant eight votes. But as Garry Wills notes, “at least twelve” of these eight votes “were not based on the citizenry that could express its will, but on the blacks owned by southern masters”; also, although he had numerous detractors in his time, Jefferson has been widely hailed by present-day historians for having crafted “the stability of the young constitutional system, since the incumbent was ousted without violence.”6 These were some of the political hijinks of the eighteenth century. The nineteenth, of course, left the College intact after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which seemed fine, as long there was no enforcement against violence at Southern polls in any case. Racial violence during elections broadly characterizes the South also in the twentieth century and disenfranchisement not only of African Americans, but also of Latinos, the elderly, the disabled, and those recently freed from incarceration as each group swelled the ranks of the electoral uncounted.

In 2016, the much-rustier machinery of the Electoral College saw the shocking electoral-vote defeat of Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump, 306-227. But even despite widespread voter suppression in the states mentioned above, as well as the fact that many more blacks and Latinos did not vote in this post-Obama election,7 Clinton actually won the popular ballot by 2.8 million votes; according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, this outcome made her the candidate with the largest margin of the popular vote in a losing presidential campaign in U.S. history.8 And despite the fact that crucial mismanagement of her campaign can be located in her ignorance of crucial battleground states, like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, it is safe to say that winning the popular vote and losing the Electoral College is not the historical achievement to which she aspired.

The foregoing is a brief genealogy of black and other-minority disenfranchisement in the United States. But it is likely that none of the architects of unjust efforts in Pennsylvania, Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, and elsewhere could ever have imagined the next most devastating assault on U.S. voting. Although efforts to distort black participation in the 2016 presidential contest were evident in all cases, not only was the 2016 assault on voting engineered by technology, but its effects were also felt in areas far beyond the African American vote, as technologies developed by foreign actors and far-right agents worked in the shadows.

Following Guccifer 2.0’s work with WikiLeaks to steal Democratic National Committee files, Cambridge Analytica, the political data firm hired by Trump’s 2016 campaign, managed to skim private information from more than 87 million Facebook users, mapped personality traits based on users’ likes, and then used the information to target audiences with digital ads.9 (It’s worth mentioning that the website Statista counts 214 million Facebook users in the United States, of nearly two billion worldwide.)10 In addition, former employee of Cambridge Analytica and whistleblower Christopher Wylie told CNN that Cambridge’s “voter disengagement tactics,” used in particular against African Americans, “ were crafted “to discourage or demobilize certains types of people from voting.”11 Cambridge Analytica was created and funded in 2013 by hedge-fund manager and Republican donor Robert Mercer and co-founded by Stephen K. Bannon, then editor of Breitbart News. After the 2016 election, Bannon would go on to become chief strategist to the President and hold a seat on the National Security Council. During August of 2016, Bannon gleefully told Sarah Posner of Mother Jones that Breitbart News was the mouthpiece of the “alt-right,” which, as Posner characterized it, had been “a once-motley assemblage of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, ethno-nationalistic provocateurs who…coalesced behind Trump and curried the GOP nominee’s favor on social media.”12

The implications of all of this appear to go far beyond a cataloguing of voting irregularities, as this litany is far longer than that for which there is space. There are three interconnected points about this situation that I wish to make, however. First, as unjust as the blunt instruments of intimidation, chicanery, and violence designed to keep African Americans away from the polls were at their inception, elements of these nevertheless persist today. Secondly, as a corollary, the lessons learned from the success of these strategies—which could likely be summarized in a Foucauldian digest, describing the knowledge yielded by their effects—have complemented the technology that has reshaped our lives since the mid-twentieth century, an interface ironically begun at roughly the dawn of the modern civil rights movement. Third, in our time, both foreign actors and domestic political adventurers have conspired, through the engines of influence, ingenuity, and wealth to extend the reach of this technology to produce the distortions of news and the analysis of it that aid in fashioning a passionately intolerant strain of nationalism in the U.S. public mind. Today, the injustices surrounding the American vote, suffered historically by blacks and others, have been broadened and sanctioned in ways that everyone can now share.

And it was ever thus. Judith Shklar characterizes an antebellum America as a place in which citizenship as a democratizing practice was always already destabilized. “What renders any group or individual unfit for citizenship,” she writes:

is economic dependence, race, and gender, which are all socially created or hereditary conditions. Such rules would seem to imply a political system that is in no sense democratic or liberal, but it was never that simple, because Americans have lived with extreme contradictions for most of their history by being dedicated to political equality as well as to its complete rejection. …America has not marched single file down a single straight liberal highway as both the lamenters and the celebrators of its political life have claimed, either in despair or in complacency. What has been continuous is a series of conflicts arising from enduring anti-liberal dispositions that have regularly asserted themselves, often very successfully, against the promise of equal political rights contained in the Declaration of Independence and its successors, the three Civil War amendments. It is because slavery, racism, nativism, and sexism, often institutionalized in exclusionary and discriminatory laws and practices, have been and still are arrayed against the officially accepted claims of equal citizenship that there is a real pattern to be discerned in the tortuous development of American ideas of citizenship.13

Shklar argues that the dialectic of citizenship has always included its abnegation; voting and free labor, as she later describes, have always recognized their opposing force and for this reason, what we may in any age have held dear as the fruit of democracy—indeed in the very way in which we ordinarily express its virtues—has never been cherished entirely of itself, but always with a sense of its fragility. The strikes and riots have always been with us. Citizenship, democracy, and other notions like these have ineluctably carried with them the consciousness of their own demise.

Even the character of the thinker, in all places and times, is under siege. As a European intellectual living in the United States, Tony Judt came to see this duality in thinking through its dimensions as they manifested in his professional life: “The twentieth century is the century of the intellectuals,” he writes, “with all of the accompanying treasons and accommodations and compromises. The problem is that we live today in an age when the illusions, disillusions, and hatreds take front and center. So it requires a conscious effort to both identify and save the core of what was good about intellectual life in the twentieth century.”14

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright remarks that this threat of a Janus-faced democracy, a sense of citizenship that is realized only with its specter of disorder, has marked itself throughout American history. The threat has sometimes inhabited the same body: FDR and Japanese internment, for example, or the intolerant Catholic priest Charles Coughlin. Often, representations of good and evil clashed in their discernible entirety: Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund versus the architects of the New Deal would be an example. But Albright warns against characterizations as absolutes, even with respect to fascism: “In hindsight,” she writes, “it is tempting to dismiss every Fascist of this era as a thoroughly bad guy or a lunatic, but that is too easy, and by inducing complacency, also dangerous. Fascism is not an exception to humanity, but part of it. Even people who enlisted in such movements out of ambition, greed, or hatred likely either were unaware of, or denied to themselves, their true motives.” One might add to Albright’s observation the deepening intolerance in Europe; Albright’s native Czech Republic, she notes, “narrowly re-elected Milos Zeman to a second term as president. Zeman, who refers to himself as ‘the Czech Trump,’ has echoed [Hungarian president Viktor] Orbán in warning of a Muslim invasion even though the Republic has accepted barely a dozen of the twenty-six hundred asylum seekers required by EU policy.”15

Under such pressures both in Europe and the United States, it becomes urgent to ask: How can so many racial minorities have ignored the polls? Judith Shklar’s consideration of citizenship may render an answer: “To be refused the right was almost to be a slave,” she writes, “but once one possessed the right it conferred no other personal advantages. Not the exercise, only the right, signified deeply…. Once the right was achieved it had fulfilled its function in distancing the citizen from his inferiors, especially slaves and women.”16 No such luxury obtains for nonwhites and women today. Where the very last vestige of citizenship in a putative democracy is identifiable only in one’s choice—in one’s vote—it is crucial to become aware of our lesser natures, our racisms, venalities, and other aspects of humanity as they coalesce in injudicious court decrees, plutocracies, and hate movements. A coalition of many still begins with the single soul as reader of culture, in her solitude, voting her conscience.

Trip Gabriel and Jess Bidgood. “Court-Drawn Map in Pennsylvania May Lift Democrats’ House Chances,” New York Times Feb. 19, 2018. Apr. 9, 2018, Web.
2 United States. Sup. Ct. Oyez. Shelby County v. Holder, 570 US_ (2013), June 25, 2013. Apr. 9, 2018, Web.
Brian Lyman. “Alabama House Votes to End U.S. Special Elections,” Montgomery Advertiser Jan. 23, 2018. Apr. 11, 2018, Web.
Ari Berman. “Welcome to the First Presidential Election Since Voting Rights Act Gutted,” Rolling Stone June 23, 2016. Apr. 14, 2018, Web.
5 —. “The GOP’s Attack on Voting Rights Was the Most Under-Covered Story of 2016,” The Nation Nov. 9, 2016. Apr. 15, 2018, Web.
Garry Wills, “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 2, 3.
Reid Wilson. “Voter turnout dipped in 2016, led by decline among blacks,” The Hill May 11, 2017. Apr. 19, 2018, Web.
Cook Political Report, 2016 National Popular Vote Tracker ( Apr. 19, 2018, Web.
Kevin Granville. “Facebook and Cambridge Analytica: What You Need to Know as Fallout Widens,” New York Times March 19, 2018. Apr. 20, 2018, Web.
10 “Number of Facebook users by age in the US as of January 2018 (in millions),” Statista Apr. 19, 2018, Web.
11 Janet Burns, “Whistleblower: Bannon Sought to Suppress Black Voters with Cambridge Analytica,” Forbes, May 19, 2018, Web.
12 Sarah Posner. “How Donald Trump’s New Campaign Chief Created an Online Haven for White Nationalists,” Mother Jones Aug. 22, 2016. Apr. 20, 2018, Web. ( Apr. 20, 2018, Web.
13 Judith N. Shklar, American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991), 6, 13.
14 Tony Judt (with Timothy Snyder), Thinking the Twentieth Century (New York: The Penguin Press, 2012), 285.
15 Madeline Albright, Fascism: A Warning (New York: HarperCollins, 2018), 63.
16 Skhlar, 27.