By Mary Claire Blakeman, New America Media
Although alleged Kremlin connections may ultimately sink Trump’s Presidency, Rev. William Barber contends that homegrown voter suppression poses a greater threat to U.S. democracy than Russian election tampering.
“Voter suppression hacked our democracy long before any Russian agents meddled in America’s elections,” said Barber, outgoing president of the North Carolina NAACP who is assuming a new role as president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and will co-lead the national Poor People’s Campaign.
That campaign — to reignite the one begun by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., almost 50 years ago — seeks to reorder national priorities to address systemic poverty, racism and the war economy.
“We’re looking at Putin’s strongman tactics and not at our own race-based voter suppression tactics,” Barber said. “But we have to demand attention. What the states with the highest voter suppression have in common is that they also have the highest rates of poverty.”
Barber developed his critique after spending years leading the Moral Mondays movement that coalesced in 2013 to combat escalating voter suppression tactics in North Carolina.
In that state, Republican legislators passed restrictions so blatantly designed to keep black voters away from the polls, the courts eventually charged that they targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision.”
For instance, legislators reduced early-voting opportunities after analyzing data showing poor and minority citizens were significantly more likely to cast their ballots prior to election day.
In Greensboro, N.C. — where student sit-ins to integrate the Woolworth’s lunch counter helped catalyze the civil rights movement in the 1960s – authorities cut early-voting sites from 16 to only one.
In the name of preventing so-called voter fraud, legislators created photo ID restrictions that disproportionately affected minorities and young people, as well as African American elders born in segregated or rural hospitals which may have lost or never issued their birth certificates.
Although North Carolina’s voter ID laws have been labeled the worst in the nation, dozens of other states have passed similar legislation — particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As Ari Berman, author of Give Us The Ballot reported in the Nation magazine, by the time of the 2016 presidential election, there were 868 fewer polling places in states with a long history of voter discrimination.
“After Shelby they went on steroids in terms of voter suppression legislation,” Barber said. “That’s the real hacking of our system.”
While Barber and members of the Moral Mondays movement participated in civil disobedience to protest voter suppression in North Carolina, he also led the state’s NAACP to fight it in the courts. In one of those cases – North Carolina v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP – the civil rights organization chalked up a victory.
On May 15, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) let stand a lower court ruling against the restrictive voting measures.
“This victory is powerful because it proves they cannot hide under the guise of photo ID,” Barber said. “It was really a monster voter-suppression bill and this case makes that very, very clear.”
Voting-rights advocates also cheered a May 22 SCOTUS decision that rejected North Carolina’s 2011 redistricting plan because legislators used race as the basis for drawing boundaries in two congressional districts. Then on June 5, the court found that 28 state legislative districts were also illegal racial gerrymanders.
Despite this good news, Barber noted that those elected through the racially biased plan remain in power.
“This ruling means we have an unconstitutionally constituted legislature that has been passing unconstitutional laws,” he said. “This legislature is not legitimate because they cheated and would not be in office. We also have people in Congress, who would not be there if we did not have this race-based redistricting plan.”
The Brennan Center for Justice supports Barber’s view about the impact of gerrymandering in its Extreme Maps report, which found that “extreme partisan bias in congressional maps account for at least 16-17 Republican seats in the current Congress.”
In light of this report and other studies on voter suppression, Barber argues that far more public attention needs to be focused on this issue — and he counsels voting-rights advocates to continue pressing it. “Expose what they’re doing,” he said.
“Make sure the public is aware of them — and make sure these laws are examined under the microscope of the constitution.”
Mary Claire Blakeman has written for newspapers such as The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.