How voter suppression laws hurt White people

How voter suppression laws hurt White people

Posted: Sep 25, 2021 11:00 AM
Updated: Sep 25, 2021 11:00 AM

Critics often describe the wave of voter restriction laws sweeping the nation as a new version of Jim Crow, the 19th century minstrel figure whose stage name became the symbol of a brutal era of Black oppression.

But if you want to understand how these new voter restriction laws also oppress White people, it's more useful to invoke another cultural figure: Wile E. Coyote.

Wile E. Coyote is the Looney Tunes cartoon character whose obsessive quest to catch the Road Runner always backfires. Though he employs an array of outlandish gadgets such as jet-powered roller skates, the coyote's schemes to capture his prey inevitably ends up injuring him instead.

This comparison is not designed to make light of voter suppression, which is an alarming attack on our democracy. It's to make a point that doesn't get emphasized enough as Democrats approach a crucial stretch in their efforts to pass a new voting rights bill: White people -- not just people of color -- have been some of the biggest victims of voter suppression tactics.

The Republican Party's crusade to make voting more difficult isn't just morally wrong. It's folly. By obsessively chasing the phantom of widespread voter fraud, they are actually hurting their own base of White voters.

So far this year, at least 18 states have passed laws that make it more difficult to vote. All but one are led by GOP-controlled legislatures.

Some of the more obvious boomerang effects of these laws have already been noted. Voter restrictions anger and mobilize voters of color. They make it more difficult for older, rural White citizens to vote. And they discourage some White voters from even participating in elections.

Even some GOP leaders are now warning that restrictive voting laws are hurting their base. One commentator went further, saying Republicans are "inadvertently suppressing their own voters."

That's the conclusion Joel Mathis came to after examining the results of the recent recall election in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom decisively thwarted the GOP-led effort to remove him from office. Initial signs suggested Republicans were energized after conservative talk show host Larry Elder entered the race, but almost every major demographic group in the state rejected the recall.

The effort to replace Newsom failed, in part, because Elder and other GOP leaders discouraged many of their own supporters from voting by alleging voter fraud in the lead-up to the election, Mathis said in a column in The Week. This was the same dynamic that led to Democrats winning Georgia and control of Congress in the last presidential election, Mathis noted.

"We now have a likely answer to the question of what will happen if Republicans keep manufacturing charges of 'voter fraud' every time they lose an election: Fewer Republican voters will go to the polls," Mathis said.

But there are other, less apparent reasons why voter suppression tactics not only harm White people but can literally cost them their lives.

They cause more people to 'die of Whiteness'

Take, for example, recent comments by Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi, which has the highest death rate for Covid-19 deaths in the US and one of the worst vaccination rates in the country.

Reeves says every Covid death breaks his heart but told CNN he still opposes President Joe Biden's vaccine mandates because they are "tyrannical."

The fact that Mississippi has some of the nation's most restrictive voting laws and an overall health system that's ranked dead last in the nation may seem unrelated. But some say they're not, because restrictive voting laws lead to voters electing less competent political leaders who don't respond to the needs of all their constituents.

That's what Alex Keena, a political scientist, discovered while researching a book he co-authored, "Gerrymandering the States: Partisanship, Race, and the Transformation of American Federalism."

Keena says members of Congress who get elected to office in part because of restrictive election laws or partisan gerrymandering often focus on cultural wedge issues or conspiracy theories because they're in safe voting districts where they don't have to address a diverse constituency.

"It leads to legislators who are good at getting elected and raising money, but they don't know a lot about government," says Keena, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

This inability to govern can have lethal consequences. Keena says.

States that enacted partisan gerrymandering -- redrawing congressional districts to favor the Republican party and deprive Black people of voting power -- tended to have higher infant mortality rates, Keena says. They also were more likely to challenge the Affordable Care Act in courts and were generally less responsive to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 than Republican-controlled states that didn't gerrymander, he found.

There is a phrase that describes what happens to some White voters in states like Mississippi. It's called "Dying of Whiteness" -- the name of a 2019 book by Jonathan M. Metzl that describes a political dynamic where racial, "backlash governance" leads to White voters picking political leaders who enact policies that tend to make them sicker, poorer and more likely to die early by gun suicide.

This same dynamic is partly why most of the counties in the US with the fewest fully vaccinated people are in Southern states led by GOP governors.

"When state governments rig the voting rules to suppress the voting power of their opponents, there are measurable decreases in public health and policy outcomes that affect everyone," Keena says.

They alienate young White voters

Republican leaders who seek to restrict voting rights also hurt themselves by turning off young White voters who could make the difference for them in future elections.

Some GOP leaders make an effort to appeal to young voters, but their party's voter restriction laws send another message: We don't want you to vote.

This message hurts young White voters by breeding political cynicism and apathy, says Mary A. Evins, coordinator for the American Democracy Project, a program that encourages civic engagement among youth. She says "the big chunk" of White voters impacted by voter restriction laws are the youngest voters.

Many students already offer all sorts of excuses for not voting: They're too busy with their classes and they believe their vote doesn't count. Voting is an acquired habit that needs to be taught and practiced to take root, Evins says.

The best way to ensure that students turn into good citizens who vote in every election is through steps such as placing polling places on every college campus -- something discouraged by many new, restrictive voting laws, she says.

"Make voting easy and accessible to first-time voters, "says Evins, a history professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

"And that is precisely what the voter suppression laws expressly opt not to do," she says. "Instead they limit opportunities, narrow locations and choices."

The Democrats' voting overhaul bill would address many of Evins' concerns. The new bill would make Election Day a public holiday, make it easier to register to vote, ensure states have early voting for federal elections and allow all voters to request mail-in ballots.

They suppress the political power of middle-class White people

Voter suppression hurts White people in another, more insidious way. It silences their voice in the political process.

A famous 2015 study concluded that the US is not a democracy but an oligarchy where the elites, not ordinary voters, determine public policy. That study validated a belief among many lower- and middle-class White voters that politicians listen to wealthy donors but not to them.

Voter suppression laws make it easier for political leaders to do just that -- favor wealthy people over others, says Lindsey Cormack, an expert on voter suppression and elections at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.

She says that when lawmakers erect additional hoops for Black or brown voters to jump through, they are also making it harder for poor and middle-class White voters to be heard. That's because those White voters also get less access to the political system and are less likely to contribute to political campaigns.

Voter suppression laws "enshrine inequalities" by transforming politics into a pay-to-play system where politicians tune out ordinary voters, she says.

"Voter suppression laws that make it harder for any poor and middle-class people to vote make it so that members of Congress have less of a reason to listen to the wants of people who are less likely to be able to turn out and vote," Cormack says.

They unravel the progress that remade America

Finally, there is a bigger reason why voter suppression laws could hurt Whites even more in the future. They could weaken the US economy and damage the country's standing in the world.

History tells us this. The first wave of voter suppression laws that targeted Blacks in the South during the late 19th and early 20th century also hurt poor White voters and the Southern economy.

The South become an economic backwater where child labor flourished, workers were exploited and state governments did little to invest in social services and public schools for ordinary people. Such measures as poll taxes and literacy tests also prevented poor Whites from voting.

The civil rights movement that swept away the apartheid system in the South also helped White people. The fall of Jim Crow lifted the economy of the entire South. It raised the standard of living for White people as new Southern leaders abandoned racial demagoguery to invest more in social services, education and public works that benefitted everyone, Whites included.

The passage of landmark civil rights laws like the Voting Rights Act also strengthened the country abroad. It was hard for American political leaders during the Cold War to preach the virtues of democracy when the world was seeing images of Black people being brutalized for trying to vote in Selma, Alabama.

The movement that got rid of voter suppression laws inspired Democratic movements around the globe. "We Shall Overcome," the civil rights anthem, was sung by pro-democracy demonstrators in China's Tiananmen Square and in South Africa during the anti-apartheid movement.

Why would any political leader want the US return to those days when America's unequal treatment of its Black citizens made it look like hypocrites on the world stage -- especially at a time when the country is engaged in a geopolitical struggle with autocratic countries like Russia and China that disdain democracy?

A return to an updated version of a Jim Crow voting system that led to some of the ugliest chapters in US history wouldn't just be folly. It would be tragic.

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

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