It was a mystery worthy of crime novelist Raymond Chandler. On 8 November 2016, African Americans did not show up. It was like a day of absence. African Americans had virtually boycotted the election because they “simply saw no affirmative reason to vote for Hillary”, as one reporter explained, before adding, with a hint of an old refrain, that “some saw her as corrupt”. As proof of blacks’ coolness toward her, journalists pointed to the much greater turnout for Obama in 2008 and 2012. It is true that, nationwide, black voter turnout had dropped by 7% overall. Moreover, less than half of Hispanic and Asian American voters came to the polls. This was, without question, a sea change. The tide of African American, Hispanic and Asian voters that had previously carried Barack Obama into the White House and kept him there had now visibly ebbed. Journalist Ari Berman called it the most underreported story of the 2016 campaign. But it’s more than that. The disappearing minority voter is the campaign’s most misunderstood story. Minority voters did not just refuse to show up; Republican legislatures and governors systematically blocked African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans from the polls.
Pushed by both the impending demographic collapse of the Republican party, whose overwhelmingly white constituency is becoming a smaller share of the electorate, and the GOP’s extremist inability to craft policies that speak to an increasingly diverse nation, the Republicans opted to disfranchise rather than reform. The GOP enacted a range of undemocratic and desperate measures to block the access of African American, Latino and other minority voters to the ballot box.
Using a series of voter suppression tactics, the GOP harassed, obstructed, frustrated and purged American citizens from having a say in their own democracy.
The devices the Republicans used are variations on a theme going back more than 150 years. They target the socioeconomic characteristics of a people (poverty, lack of mobility, illiteracy, etc) and then soak the new laws in “racially neutral justifications – such as “administrative efficiency” or “fiscal responsibility” – to cover the discriminatory intent. Republican lawmakers then act aggrieved, shocked and wounded that anyone would question their stated purpose for excluding millions of American citizens from the ballot.
The millions of votes and voters that disappeared behind a firewall of hate and partisan politics was a long time in the making. The decisions to purposely disenfranchise African Americans, in particular, can be best understood by going back to the close of the civil war.