New book explores history of voter suppression in America

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Sept. 24, 2018


In “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy,” Emory historian Carol Anderson asserts that many of the efforts employed to impede black voters in the Jim Crow South are still being used successfully today.

While on the national speaking circuit following the release of her award-winning book, “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide,” Emory historian and professor Carol Anderson noticed a curious trend.

As she described tactics used throughout the nation’s history to keep African Americans from voting — including gerrymandering, closing polling stations, purging voter rolls, restricting voting hours and adopting stringent voter ID laws — Anderson often saw stunned looks in her audiences. 

Questions typically followed along the lines of, “I don’t understand. How hard is it to get an ID? We have to make sure that people who aren’t supposed to be voting shouldn’t be voting” — ideas that, on their face, may sound reasonable, she acknowledges.

In her new book, “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy,” published this month by Bloomsbury and on the longlist for this year’s National Book Award for nonfiction, Anderson asserts that many of the same efforts employed to impede black voters in the Jim Crow South are still being used successfully today, wrapped in the mythology of widespread “voter fraud” — overblown allegations that simply haven’t stood up to scrutiny, she says.

“All of those little things that sound ‘fiscally responsible’ or ‘absolutely necessary to maintain the integrity of the ballot box’ are not designed to enhance the integrity of democracy, but in fact undermine that integrity,” says Anderson, Charles Howard Candler Professor and chair of African American Studies at Emory.

New look at an old problem

Voter suppression in America is as old as Reconstruction and as current as today’s headlines, according to Anderson.

From redistricting battles in Wisconsin and North Carolina to early voting cutbacks in Ohio, from a Florida law that prevents ex-felons from voting even after time served to a Texas voter ID law that recognizes a handgun license as an acceptable form of government-issued identification, but not student IDs from state universities, Anderson chronicles tactics that are actively — and effectively — keeping American voters from the polls.

Currently, 77 million eligible Americans aren’t on the nation’s voter rolls, Anderson observes — a number that exceeds the total combined population of the largest 100 cities in the country by 16 million people.

Across the U.S., more than 42 percent of Latino residents, 43 percent of Asian residents, and nearly 31 percent of African Americans are not registered to vote, she says. “In short, an increasingly diverse America is poised to have an increasingly racially homogenous electorate, Anderson writes. “And voter suppression exacerbates the consequences.”

Part of the problem can be found in the systematic roadblocks that have arisen following what Anderson calls “the evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act” by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.

The 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder “essentially allows districts with a demonstrated history of racial discrimination to change voting requirements without approval from the Department of Justice, a move that has opened the doors for states to adopt even more voter suppression laws,” Anderson argues.

And that’s what’s happened, she says. An MIT study found an estimated 16 million people — about 12 percent of all voters — experienced at least one problem voting in 2016. Overall, 14 states had new voting restrictions in place for the first time that year.

The result? During the 2016 presidential race, black voter turnout alone dropped by 7 percent, overall, and less than half of Hispanic and Asian American voters made it to the polls.

Yet the justification for such restrictions just isn’t there, Anderson contends.

Citing a study by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt, between 2000 and 2014 there have been only 31 cases of voter identification fraud confirmed out of 1 billion ballots cast, she notes.

Policy and racial inequality

Anderson’s scholarship has long focused on the ways in which policies are made and unmade, and how racial inequality and racism affect that process and outcome. Growing up, she saw that complicated dynamic play out firsthand.

After 20 years of service in the U.S. Army, Anderson’s father settled his family in Columbus, Ohio. “My mother saw a house in Oakland Park that she really liked, but the realtor said, ‘No, that’s not where you people live,’” she recalls, instead directing them to a neighborhood that was on the verge of urban decline.

It was the beginning of an awakening. As neighborhood grocery stores turned into carry-outs that sold cheap booze, and blight took hold, Anderson watched her father struggle to advocate for improvements.

“I saw a community fighting for its very humanity, fighting for its dignity and all these structural, systemic forces doing everything they could to undermine it,” she recalls.

Early on, Anderson understood the influential role policymakers and activists played in shaping the world around her. In choosing an academic life, she set out to discover how and why, then document the resulting outcomes.

While researching “One Person, No Vote,” she knew her scholarship on a hot-button topic would be heavily scrutinized. As a result, over a third of her book contains extensively documented chapter notes. “Facts matter,” she says.

Key to making her work possible, Anderson credits the help of student research assistants and the resources offered through Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, including a trove of Southern Christian Leadership Conference records.

“I have been blessed to be at Emory,” she says.

Vote, vote, vote

Amid the ongoing battle over voter suppression laws, Anderson says she is encouraged by a number of states taking steps to expand voter registration efforts.

In Oregon, for example, residents are automatically registered to vote when they register for a driver’s license, unless they opt out — a practice that has now been adopted in a dozen states, plus the District of Columbia.

“Oregon already had a high voter turnout rate, then their voter turnout rate went up even higher after automatic voter registration,” Anderson says. “But even more than that, their electorate became more diverse with automatic voter registration.”

And that kind of representation is an essential underpinning for a functioning democracy, she contends. “When 31 states are vying to develop new and more ruthless ways to disenfranchise their populations, and when the others are searching desperately for ways to bring millions of citizens into the electorate, we have created a nation where democracy is simultaneously atrophying and growing — depending solely on where one lives,” Anderson writes.

“History makes clear, however, that this is simply not sustainable,” she adds.

As for what the average person can do to help affect change, the answer is simple. 

“Register to vote, and then vote,” Anderson says. “Democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires engagement, and when we don't engage, what we see is the system running amok.”