Decades ago, amid the most overt privations of Jim Crow, African-Americans used to tell a joke about a black Harvard professor who moves to the Deep South and tries to register to vote. A white clerk tells him that he will first have to read aloud a paragraph from the Constitution. When he easily does so, the clerk says that he will also have to read and translate a section written in Spanish. Again he complies. The clerk then demands that he read sections in French, German, and Russian, all of which he happens to speak fluently. Finally, the clerk shows him a passage in Arabic. The professor looks at it and says, “My Arabic is rusty, but I believe this translates to ‘Negroes cannot vote in this county.’ ”
Old jokes have lately been finding renewed salience. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses, once the most common mechanisms for disadvantaging minority voters, have been consigned to the history books, but one need look no further than the governor’s race in Georgia to see their modern equivalents in action. The race between the Republican, Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, and the Democrat, Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the state House of Representatives—who, if she wins, will be the first black female governor in the country—is a virtual tie. But Kemp has invoked the so-called exact-match law to suspend fifty-three thousand voter-registration applications, for infractions as minor as a hyphen missing from a surname. African-Americans make up thirty-two per cent of the state’s population, but they represent nearly seventy per cent of the suspended applications. Kemp’s move is particularly questionable given that Abrams’s electoral strategy hinges on mobilizing the six hundred thousand unregistered black voters who have long been seen as the holy grail of Democratic politics in the state.
Kemp’s acts are singled out for scrutiny in “One Person, No Vote,” a book about modern-day voter suppression, by the historian Carol Anderson. In 2012, after the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, in Atlanta, discovered that many of its clients who were naturalized citizens were not on the voter rolls, despite having registered, the group raised the issue with Kemp’s office. “In a show of raw intimidation,” Anderson writes, “Kemp ordered an investigation questioning the methods that the organization had used to register new voters.” In 2014, Kemp investigated the New Georgia Project, a voter-registration initiative that Abrams had founded. In a similar vein, officials in Jefferson County last week ordered a group of African-American senior citizens off a bus taking them to an early-voting site, on the ground that the transportation, which had been organized by the nonpartisan group Black Voters Matter, was a “political activity.”
The events in Georgia are part of a broader political project. The xenophobia and the resentment that Donald Trump stirred up during the 2016 election are fundamentally concerns about the future of the American electorate. (His reported comment that too many people are immigrating from “shithole countries” in Africa and the Caribbean was paired with a lament that not enough are coming from Europe.) He has repeatedly stated that he lost the popular vote because non-citizens voted for Hillary Clinton. Last Thursday, at a rally in Montana, he suggested that Democrats were responsible for a caravan of migrants now heading north from Honduras, because they “figure everybody coming in is going to vote Democrat.” Kemp, likewise, claimed that Abrams wants to let undocumented people vote in Georgia. The suppression of minority votes is the homegrown corollary of this strategy—an attempt to place a white thumb on the demographic scale.