I. The Elusive 10%
The nation’s final election of 2018 was held last Saturday in Louisiana. As widely expected, Republican Kyle Ardoin, who had been serving as the state’s interim Secretary of State since the resignation of his former boss, can drop the word interim from his job title, at least for another thirteen months. If he intends on serving a full term, Ardoin will have to run in November, which effectively means he’ll have to start campaigning again immediately.
Ardoin beat his Democratic opponent, Gwen Collins-Greenup, by more than nineteen points. “Another black Democrat tries and fails to win a Southern state,” is the headline The Times-Picayune affixed to columnist Jarvis DeBerry’s most recent commentary.
“Supporters of Collins-Greenup were sending out handwritten postcards and holding up hand-lettered signs, and she got 41 percent of the vote. That probably indicates that in a one-on-one contest, a black Democrat can get 40 percent in the South just by being a black Democrat,” DeBerry writes. “It’s that extra 10 percent that’s proved impossible to get.”
DeBerry is correct, at least historically. Those ten points have remained elusive for previous black Democratic candidates in Louisiana, but there are legitimate reasons for optimism.
Collins-Greenup, as DeBerry acknowledges, barely ran a campaign, and that is putting it politely.
Her campaign finance reports during the primary raise serious legal and ethical questions: Back then, her single largest contribution came from a church, and her husband “gifted” the resources it used for its paltry amount of campaign materials.
At least one nonprofit organization in Central Louisiana, Help Planners, distributed push cards styled as sample ballots, claiming that Collins-Greenup had been endorsed by former President Barack Obama.
In 2012, the organization claimed in its Articles of Incorporation, to be governed by the laws that apply to 501(c)(3)s, but it never sought federal recognition from the IRS as a nonprofit and has never publicly disclosed any of its finances, including the independent expenditures made in direct support of specific candidates. Notably, former President Obama never issued any endorsements for any candidates in Louisiana. Help Planners had brazenly conducted a disinformation campaign; in addition to supporting Collins-Greenup, the organization also supported the campaign of its own treasurer, Gerber Porter, for Alexandria City Council.
Despite her obscurity, Collins-Greenup secured enough votes to earn a spot in the runoff, which she attributes to her outreach to majority African American churches and which others, perplexingly, believe was the consequence of the alphabet; as a result of her hyphenated surname, she was the first Democrat listed on the ballot.
Regardless though, the most important number of the final election of 2018 is not 41%, the share of the vote Collins-Greenup received. (Collins-Greenup actually earned a higher percentage of votes than Chris Tyson, an African American Democrat who ran a serious and credible campaign for the same office three years ago, though Tyson won more votes, in total, than any African-American candidate in nearly three decades).
The most important number is 17.2%. That’s the number of registered voters in Louisiana who bothered to show up on Dec. 8th, and for reasons we will unpack later, that number is deceptive.
Voter apathy is more effective than any other weapon in the arsenal used to ensure voter suppression, especially in the Deep South. It may sound counterintuitive, but apathy can often be an expensive strategy. It may mean distributing disinformation, investing in a “spoiler” candidate’s campaign, or, in a state like Louisiana with its jungle primary system, misdirecting voters of an opposing political party to its weakest candidate.
Collins-Greenup’s failed campaign may reveal less about the historic ceiling facing black Democratic candidates than it does about the new floor for any Democratic candidate. In that respect, there is a silver lining that should provide serious Democratic campaigns with a legitimate case going forward.
Consider this: Republicans raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat a Democratic candidate whose campaign was completely broke on the day of the primary election. During the runoff, Kyle Ardoin raised at least $132,000, and yet he still couldn’t break 60% against an unknown Democrat who didn’t have enough money to even advertise.
All told (excluding the in-kind contributions made by the Louisiana Democratic Party), Collins-Greenup raised slightly more than $17,000 during the runoff, and her campaign finance reports became so meticulous (and perhaps paranoid) they included any contribution over a dollar. On a per vote basis, though, donors to Collins-Greenup can claim the highest return on investment than any other statewide campaign in modern Louisiana history.
Of course, it is impossible to know the extent to which race factored into that particular election. Would Ardoin have received more votes if he had been running against a well-known black Democrat? Or could a more well-known black Democrat have closed that elusive ten-point gap?
A few things are certain, however. Ardoin’s campaign understood their clearest pathway to victory was against an obscure candidate from East Feliciana Parish with almost no resources and no organization, and in the weeks leading up to the election, his supporters disseminated polling data that showed that particular candidate, miraculously, in second place.
It may be impossible to quantify, but it is also certain that, in the Deep South, race still very much matters, particularly for Democratic candidates.
In 2007, Bobby Jindal became the first Indian American ever elected governor in the nation’s history and the first “non-white” candidate to win a statewide election in Louisiana since Reconstruction.
Jindal had tried and failed in a bid for governor only four years prior, losing to the first woman ever elected to the office in Louisiana history, Kathleen Blanco. At the time, some of Jindal’s closest supporters believed that his loss was the result of a racist whisper campaign, but according to “The Intersection of Race and Gender in Election Coverage: What Happens When the Candidates Don’t Fit the Stereotypes?,” a peer-reviewed study of the 2003 election conducted by Dr. Lesa Major of Indiana University and Dr. Renita Coleman of the University of Texas at Austin, media coverage of Jindal’s ethnicity was essentially universally positive. Race and gender were not determinative factors in that election; age and experience were. (Jindal was a 33 year old neophyte running against a woman with 20 years in public office and who had won her most recent statewide campaign for Lt. Governor with 80% of the vote).
Jindal’s victory four years later revealed that Louisiana was capable of electing a non-white candidate, but for a couple of glaringly obvious reasons, it seems somewhat disingenuous to place it within the context of Reconstruction.
Finally, the last election of 2018 proved there is a reason Republican elected officials across the country and especially in the Deep South are quietly satisfied with low turnout and have become loudly and proudly obsessed with “voter fraud.”
II. LBJ’s Prediction Still Resonates.
Our neighbors across the Sabine River learned last week the official results of what was arguably the most consequential and compelling race in the country during the 2018 midterms: The battle between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke was the closest Senate election in the state in forty years; the Republican incumbent only managed to get 50.8% of the vote in a race he had been expected to conquer by double-digits. “While O’Rourke lost, groups like Battleground Texas say that margin of defeat is nearly four times closer than they thought was even possible and it has them itching to get to work on 2020,” the Houston Chronicle reported.
Beto O’Rourke, it is said, lost the battle, but he may have won the war: By Election Day in November, Texas had 543,716 more registered voters than it had in March, and as a result, Democrats picked up two seats in Congress, two seats in the state Senate and a dozen seats in the state House; they now control majorities in both the third and fifth state circuit courts. In Harris County, Democrats picked up a staggering 59 judicial seats; 19 of those were black women.
Statewide, turnout in Texas increased by 18 points since the 2014 midterms, the sixth-highest increase in the country. They were registering more new voters in a month than they typically registered in an entire year.
Without question, the O’Rourke campaign’s phenomenal success, even in defeat, is largely attributable to the candidate himself, but it’s also due to an enormous surge in turnout and in voter registration.
There’s an oft-repeated adage about politics that “demographics are destiny;” it may seem intuitive, but it discounts a reality that those of us in the Deep South know too well (and yes, although Texas is so vast it is impossible to pigeonhole the state as belonging to a particular region, it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that a large portion of the state- politically, culturally, historically, and geographically- belong in the Deep South).
Fear of demographics is a far more powerful force than the destiny of demographics.
Our neighbors in Mississippi can certainly attest to this.
Despite his impressive credentials- as a former U.S. Congressman and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy lost his election to the Senate to Cindy Hyde-Smith, a woman who was caught on tape making a bizarre reference to attending a public hanging and “joking” about suppressing the votes of liberal college students. Then, there were pictures of her glowing at Beauvoir, the “presidential home” of Jefferson Davis. In one, she stands next to a man once associated with an organization identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “hate group;” in another, she dons a Confederate-era hat. She captions her photos, “Mississippi history at its best!” And then, of course, there were reports about Hyde-Smith’s attendance at a “segregation academy,” private schools that were established for the expressed intention to avoid the legal mandate of school integration.
In their one and only debate, the first Senate debate in Mississippi in a decade, Hyde-Smith seemed embarrassingly unprepared, relying on a stack of notes to awkwardly answer even the simplest of questions.
Hyde-Smith, the Republican, beat Espy, the Democrat, by more than six points, which may have been closer than anyone had initially anticipated but not close enough to warrant a serious conversation about Mississippi shaking off its reputation as reliably ruby red.
But it’s a conversation worth having.
The most popular elected official in Mississippi and a man who very well could become its next governor is its current state Attorney General, Jim Hood, a Democrat. There are several differences between Espy and Hood, and, of course, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Espy is African American and Hood is white.
Last year in Alabama, Doug Jones, a white Democrat, narrowly defeated Republican Roy Moore for a seat in the U.S. Senate, but only after multiple women accused Moore of sexually assaulting them when he was in his thirties and they were teenagers. Jones’s victory is almost entirely attributable to massive turnout by African American women.
Beto O’Rourke’s campaign may have been the most consequential in the past two years, because Texas isn’t supposed to be in play for Democrats, at least yet. His loss, by 2.6 points, comes only four years after Wendy Davis was defeated in her closely-watched campaign for governor by more than 20 points. And that changes the national map.
It was also compelling because O’Rourke, a white Democrat, rejected the conventional playbook used by other white Democrats that too often takes minority voters for granted (see Donna Brazile’s book Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign).
But the razor-thin defeats of Andrew Gillum for Florida governor and Stacey Abrams for Georgia governor may have been the most heartbreaking, because Gillum and Abrams, both African Americans, seemed on the verge of making history in two states that should be competitive.
Abrams’s loss is particularly hard to stomach because of the efforts of her opponent, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, at voter suppression.
“Democracy failed (in Georgia),” Abrams said. “I know that eight years of systemic disenfranchisement, disinvestment and incompetence had its desired affect on the electoral process in Georgia.”
Indeed, “systemic disenfranchisement, disinvestment, and incompetence” have defined Deep South politics for more than a century.
Mississippi, with a population that is 37% black, hasn’t elected an African American to a statewide office since Reconstruction; neither has Alabama, which is 30% black, or Louisiana, which is now 32.2% black.
Shortly after signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson allegedly said, “We have lost the South for a generation.” The quote has become apocryphal, but it’s not entirely accurate. Bill Moyers, the legendary journalist who served as LBJ’s special assistant and informal chief of staff for most of his tenure, recounted a conversation he had with the president on the night of the bill’s passage:
But (Johnson) also knew that not an inch would be won cheaply. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is to many of us a watershed in American history and one of the most exhilarating triumphs of the Johnson years. With it, blacks gained access to public accommodations across the country. When he signed the act he was euphoric, but late that very night I found him in a melancholy mood as he lay in bed reading the bulldog edition of the Washington Post with headlines celebrating the day. I asked him what was troubling him. “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,” he said.
Johnson did not say that Democrats had “lost” the South, but that they had “delivered” it to Republicans, and not “for a generation” but “for a long time to come.” That quote may not be as pithy, but it’s definitely more accurate.
Republicans boast about being the “party of Lincoln,” particularly when confronted with its modern record on race relations and social equality, but the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 formalized a party realignment that had been gestating since Hubert Humphrey’s speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. To ignore or obfuscate the tangible policy divergences between the two parties is to reject the full and true historicity of the GOP. As a consequence of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the subsequent dominance of the Southern Strategy in national elections, black voters are now almost exclusively registered as Democrats.
The efforts to clamp down on the specter of voter fraud must be understood within that demographic and historical context. The tall-tales of black voters engaging in voter fraud, which are told frequently by white Southern conservatives, are a work of fiction— a way of justifying a type of modern-day poll tax through passing onerous Voter ID requirements, shuttering polling precincts in majority-minority neighborhoods, and arbitrarily scrubbing voters from the rolls.
III. The Names Have Changed, But The Story Is The Same.
We can actually learn more about voter trends and party affiliation from Louisiana than any other state in the Deep South, because Louisiana is the only state in the country that actively tracks demographic details about its registered voters.
“If every single person who is already registered to vote in Louisiana actually showed up to vote,” a state political operative recently told me, “we’d be deep blue state.” That may be a slight exaggeration, particularly when one accounts for the effects of partisan gerrymandering, but it’s true that Democrats, at least statistically, enjoy a 12 point advantage over Republicans. Hypothetically, assuming that independent voters track similarly with the rest of the state, in a heads-up contest between a Republican and a Democrat, the Democratic candidate could capture 51% of any statewide election without needing a single vote from a white independent.
But compulsory voting seems antithetical to American democracy, and for many, the decision not to vote in a particular election is an act of protest, not merely a consequence of apathy.
In total, as of Dec. 1st, 2018, there are 2,999,232 people registered to vote in Louisiana. Here is how those numbers break down by party and by race:
Some argue the reason there are still more registered Democrats in Louisiana than registered Republicans is because of the prevalence of older white voters who simply never bothered to change their party affiliation. The explanation may have made more sense twenty years ago than it does today. For one, any white voter who registered as a Democrat prior to realignment would now be over the age of 75 (approximately 5.7% of the entire population).
However, it is true that party realignment took longer to take hold in Louisiana than it did across the rest of the Deep South, but the underlying reason is due to one of the state’s most peculiar characteristics, the so-called “jungle primary” system.
When it was instituted by Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards during his first term in office, the “jungle primary” was intended to better preserve Democratic control by forcing Republican candidates to effectively cannibalize their own base. The idea backfired. Instead of protecting Democrats, the jungle primary made incumbents more vulnerable and ensured that, in a runoff, they would likely square off against the strongest Republican candidate. In 1980, after term limits prevented him from seeking a third consecutive term (Edwards would eventually serve two more terms as governor), he was replaced by Dave Treen, the first Republican governor of the state since Reconstruction.
Among his many nicknames, Edwards is sometimes sarcastically referred to as the “Father of the Louisiana Republican Party.”
This isn’t entirely fair to Edwards, because although the jungle primary system dramatically accelerated Republican representation, the party had already begun reorganizing well beforehand. After going dormant for more than a half of a century, by 1971, as Philip Uzee noted in his contemporaneous article “The Beginnings of the Louisiana Republican Party,” the LA GOP had 58 working committees and counted 15 elected officials across the state among its ranks.
There may be a number of reasonable differences of opinion between members of the nation’s two major political parties, but the “new” Republican Party of the Deep South and, arguably, across the country, was, at least initially, motivated by racial antipathy. In Moyers’s retelling, in the paragraph immediately following LBJ’s quote, he writes:
Throughout that heady year, even as his own popularity soared, the president saw the gathering storm of a backlash. George Wallace took 34 percent of the presidential vote in liberal Wisconsin, 30 percent in Indiana, and 43 percent in Maryland. Watching the newscasts one night, the president said, “George Wallace makes these working folks think whatever is happening to them is all the Negro’s fault. He runs around throwing gasoline on coals that ought to be dying out; he’d burn the whole goddam house down just to save his separate drinking water.”
During his 1968 bid for the presidency, George Wallace won five states: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
Also in 1968, a year that many believe forever changed America, a freshman student at Louisiana State University began his political career by delivering a series of rants on a corner of campus known as Free Speech Alley. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, and David Duke was shouting his way into the spotlight.
Despite the fact that Louisiana Republicans may have been late to the party (even Duke was initially registered as a Democrat), realignment in the Deep South ultimately had nothing to do with the jungle primary system. It was, first and foremost, a reaction to the enfranchisement of African American voters, the polar opposite of the original iteration of the Louisiana Republican Party, which was founded months after the end of the Civil War and was also known as “Friends of Universal Suffrage.”
The history lesson here is important, because the original Louisiana Republican Party bears almost no resemblance to the party of today. The founders of the state’s first GOP were a coalition of white antislavery Unionists and “free Negroes,” primarily from New Orleans. They were Radicals (with a capital r) who believed in guaranteeing blacks with the right to vote and ensuring that blacks could also become candidates for and get elected to public office; to that end, they worked actively at registering more than 700,000 black voters.
In 1867, when they met to draft a new state Constitution, the document they produced ensured representation based on population, safeguarded the rights of blacks to vote and hold political office, and opened up all public facilities to blacks, including the state university.
On June 25th, 1868, Louisiana was officially readmitted into the Union, and for the next eight years, the state remained under Republican control, in large part due to the presence of federal troops. The Compromise of 1877 gave the White House to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Louisiana back to the Redeemer Democrats.
On April 24th, 1877, Reconstruction officially ended, and the federal troops that had been stationed in Louisiana were sent home.
Republican candidates, including a handful of African Americans, enjoyed some modest victories in the decade and a half that followed, but since that day in April 1877, Louisiana has still yet to elect a black candidate to a statewide office. By 1900, after Louisiana adopted the “Mississippi Plan,” there were only 5,320 registered black voters in the entire state.
IV. The Realities of Realignment.
If you dig deeper into the Louisiana Secretary of State’s data, you’ll discover that the racial bifurcation is astonishing, and party realignment is real. 98.2% of registered Republicans in Louisiana are white, while 40.1% of registered Democrats are white. This is one of the reasons Bobby Jindal’s 2007 victory as Louisiana’s first “non-white” candidate to win statewide office since Reconstruction deserves a footnote.
It is incontrovertibly true, but so is the fact that he belongs to a political party in which only 1.8% of its members are “non-white,” in a state that is now 32.2% black. In the Deep South, the enduring legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction is not something that can be inherited by or redeemed by the election of a first-generation conservative son of two highly-educated professionals who immigrated to the United States from India in 1970.
This should not be read as a way of diminishing Jindal’s historic accomplishment, but only as a reminder that the American Civil War was fought to end the multi-generational enslavement and disenfranchisement of black Southerners. The significance of referencing Reconstruction as a point in history is that it marked the end of a brief era in which African Americans were elected to statewide offices in the former Confederacy. Former Gov. Jindal may not “believe” in “hyphenated Americans,” but racial discrimination is not something that one can end merely by pretending it doesn’t exist.
When Jarvis DeBerry writes about the elusive ten-points that seem out of reach for black Democrats in Louisiana, he is not arguing that it is impossible for a non-white candidate to win in the state; that has already occurred. He is asking readers to confront a political reality and an enduring consequence of party realignment.
Today in Louisiana, there are fewer than 23,000 black Republicans registered, whereas there are more than 860,000 white voters registered Republican.
When you measure white Democrats against the entire voting population of Louisiana, they comprise only 17.2% of the total (or fewer than one in five). To be sure, independent voters, who are an ever-increasing percentage of the state’s electorate, more effectively reflect the state’s demographics, as 32.9% are people of color.
Despite all of this, for a multitude of reasons, the numbers are there for a black Democrat to win resoundingly in Louisiana, which is why Gwen Collins-Greenup’s lopsided loss actually may point to the new floor and not to an old ceiling.
According to analysis from the United States Electoral Project, there are approximately 320,675 Louisianians who are eligible to vote but not registered to vote. By March, as a consequence of a recently passed law that restores voting rights to a specific group of ex-felons, that number could grow by another 43,000.
This means that more than 10% of eligible voters in Louisiana cannot vote because they’re simply not registered to vote, and we know, essentially, who these voters are: Approximately 18.8% of them are white men and 21.9% are African American men. Women in Louisiana, by contrast, are registered in much higher numbers: 96.4% of eligible African American women and 97.7% of eligible white women are already registered.
That’s why the abysmal 17.2% turnout in December’s election is a deceptive number; it’s actually far worse.
In fact, Louisiana was one of only two states in the country (the other being Alaska) in which there were fewer voters in the 2018 midterms in November than there were in 2014. Nationally, turnout increased by 13.4 points; Louisiana declined by 0.1 points.
Louisiana’s Secretary of State claims that the state’s overall turnout in November was 50.78%, but the more accurate number, when accounting for all eligible voters, is 44.8%. The difference is substantial, and it disproportionately affects minority voters. Regardless of political affiliation, black voter turnout was significantly lower than white turnout.
Fortunately, we also know several of the underlying reasons for decreased turnout, and, with the exceptions of gerrymandering and overturning the Court’s decision in Shelby, we know that many of these issues can be fixed rather simply.
Last June, the Louisiana Advisory Committee for the United States Commission on Civil Rights submitted and published a briefing paper titled “Barriers to Voting in Louisiana.” The document outlines and analyzes a number of unnecessary impediments the state has enacted that have directly resulted in voter suppression and decreased turnout. It also includes testimony from the newly-elected Louisiana Secretary of State, Kyle Ardoin, that strongly suggests he either fundamentally misapprehended a critical part of the law or was willfully engaging in obfuscation in order to confuse a simple issue.
During the past six years, the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office has closed approximately 103 polling places, and according to the testimony provided to the committee, those closures have made it significantly and specifically more burdensome for voters in majority-minority neighborhoods. Quoting (emphasis added):
(A)lthough the law dictates that only the number of registered voters should be related to the number of polling locations in a geographical area such as a precinct, a census tract, or a Parish, a statistical analysis of the data from Louisiana shows that the racial make-up of an area is a predictor of the number of polling locations in that area.
The testimony of Ms. Williams as well as her subsequent analysis shows that the number of polling locations per 1,000 registered voters in a census tract is negatively related to the number of black residents in that census tract. This indicates that there are fewer polling locations per voter in a geographical area if that area has more black residents. This in turn implies that black residents face longer travel distances to reach a polling location.
Kyle Ardoin, who was then serving as former Sec. Tom Schedler’s First Assistant, told the committee that the closures were necessary due to budget constraints, claiming that each polling place costs the state $1,300. It is worth noting the State of Louisiana spent more taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit against Sec. Schedler than it “saved” by closing all 103 polling locations.
When state Sen. Karen Carter-Peterson inquired about the closure of a specific polling place in New Orleans, which required people without access to transportation to walk 1.5 miles to vote, Ardoin initially claimed “no one (in his office) could find out what (Carter-Peterson) was talking about,” and then disclosed he was aware of “a similar instance there” in which a polling place was moved two miles from its original location.
He attempted to rationalize the decision, stating, “I find it hard to believe that in Orleans, the Clerk of Court, the City Council, the Mayor, would try to disenfranchise people.” In fact, neither the City Council nor the Mayor possess any statutory authority or oversight of the location of polling places; ultimately, recommendations are made by a five-member advisory committee and decided by the Secretary of State. Ardoin, the commission concluded, lacked clarity on the law. The commission also recommended the five-member advisory or “governing committee” be restructured in order to ensure greater accountability from voters (currently, three of the five members of each parish’s committee are unelected appointees).
More urgently, though left unsaid, Louisiana needs to invest in opening additional polling locations in majority-minority communities in order to ensure the same, equitable access provided to citizens living in majority white neighborhoods.
The commission also noted that although early voting continues to be increasingly popular, the state operates a dramatically small number of early voting locations. There are only 92 places spread over 64 parishes and 3,904 precincts. Alarmingly, there are only four locations in each of the state’s three most populated parishes. Its fourth most populated, Caddo Parish, has only one location. Lafayette, the state’s fourth largest city, also has just one location. All told, that means 37% of the state’s population, those who live in its largest and most diverse urban communities, have access to only 15% of its early voting locations. Ardoin, again, stated the Secretary of State’s office was constrained by its budget, claiming that each early voting location costs between $30,000 to $60,000 to open and at least $10,000 a year to operate. Regardless, the numbers prove the Secretary of State has disproportionately invested in making it easier for rural, predominately white, and predominately conservative voters to take advantage of early voting.
“Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value,” former Vice President Joe Biden frequently says.
There are other issues that could be easily solved: Louisiana could provide citizens the ability to register on the day of an election, as other states have done successfully, or, at the very least, it could reduce the 30-day “waiting period” it now arbitrarily imposes on new voters. It could also loosen Voter ID restrictions, which disproportionately affect the poor, the elderly, and the disabled.
V. Hack Voter Suppression, Not Elections.
Of course, it is highly unlikely that Kyle Ardoin will do anything during the next thirteen months to actually make it easier for people to vote or to ensure more equitable access to the polls. As he made abundantly clear on the campaign trail, he is more than satisfied with the way things are going right now, thank you very much, even if that means scratching plans to replace 10,000 voting machines.
After the Civil War, the Republican Party of Louisiana was animated by a fundamental belief in expanding access to democracy to those who had been unjustly disenfranchised. They were not all saints or angels, and as in any political party, they had their fair share of bad actors and repugnant decisions. But they believed in empowering African American men with the right to vote (Remember, the 19th Amendment wasn’t passed until 1920, and embarrassingly, Louisiana didn’t actually ratify it until 1971).
The original LA GOP helped register more than 700,000 black voters; more than 32% of its members were black; four of the nine men who wrote the state’s 1867 Constitution were black. This was a political party that vehemently rejected the Confederacy and regarded its leaders as traitors, not as honorable war heroes.
The same can be said about the other Deep South chapters of “the party of Lincoln.” When Reconstruction ended, so too did the hopes of that iteration of Southern Republicanism. The party eventually became so insignificant in Louisiana that it didn’t compete in a single election for fifty years. By the time it reemerged in the Deep South, it was only to fill the vacuum created by a Democratic Party who had finally, if not begrudgingly, decided to embrace the cause of civil rights.
This matters. History is relevant. “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”
When former President George H.W. Bush passed away on the final day of November this year, many Americans were reminded of a more civil, more decent, more sophisticated, and more high-minded version of the political party now led by Donald Trump, but many also could not forget the infamous Willie Horton commercial and the ways in which his campaign utilized racist dog whistles to lock up the election. The man behind that ad, Lee Atwater, a son of the South, died from brain cancer when he was just forty years old, but before his death, he personally and publicly apologized for the ad, regretting its “naked cruelty.”
A few days after former President Bush’s death, The Washington Post‘s Eugene Scott reflected on the ways in which the ad continues to resonate today:
But that does not mean that Bush’s presidency was without the accusations of racism that led so many black Americans to look at the GOP negatively then and perhaps even more so today. And for many of those black Americans, understanding why so many within their community look at Trump’s party negatively starts with looking to GOP leaders of the past.
Scott’s explanation is imminently reasonable; he is not reflexively asserting that all Republicans are racists or even that the late former president was a racist. He is, however, explaining why history, when it is told responsibly and no matter how hard it tries, cannot overlook or truly forgive the “naked cruelty” of racism.
The question still lingers, “How can a new generation win back the Deep South?”
The easiest way- that is, the way that requires the least amount of work- is to stand back and allow those who traffic in racial resentment and fear slowly but surely get crushed by a country that is inexorably changing. Yes, fear of demographics is a far more powerful force than the destiny of demographics, at least in the short-term, but ultimately, you cannot escape fate. A political party that is 98.2% white cannot sustain itself forever in a state that is increasingly more diverse, more politically-aware, and more connected to the outside world than even someone as prescient as LBJ could have ever imagined.
That’s less of a war of attrition though than it is a waiting game. And even though it may be easiest for most people to just sit back and watch an entire ideology sputter into obsolescence after exhausting the last remaining fumes of a tank once filled with theories about forged birth certificates, caravans of invading terrorists disguised as Hispanic refugees, and busloads of black women from Mississippi driving into Alabama to ensure the candidate accused of child molestation loses an election that God told him he would win, “waiting it out” guarantees that the most vulnerable and the most marginalized members of our communities will continue to suffer.
Therefore, it’s really not an option.
The only real option, the least painful and the quickest solution, is to hack voter suppression through a coordinated, fully-funded, integrated, and principled counterattack. We know, through hard evidence, that the party currently in control of the overwhelming majority of the Deep South is vastly outnumbered by people who reject their brand of politics. If it isn’t already clear by now, it should be: Their strategy is simple. They’ve spun and sold a story of how American democracy is existentially threatened by fraudulent voters. Shortly after he won the presidency by losing the popular vote by three million and still capturing the Electoral College, Donald Trump told the American public that he would have won the popular vote if it weren’t for the millions of fraudulent votes received by Sec. Clinton. It’s lunacy, but among his base, the story works.
Hacking voter suppression, by the way, doesn’t mean doing anything illegal or unethical. Hacking, in this context, does not mean stealing; it means adhering to Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
For example, when the Louisiana Secretary of State argues they cannot open additional early voting locations in the state’s largest cities and parishes, it means that city and parish governments volunteer to pony up the funding themselves. When a city is told it cannot waive bus fares on Election Day, it means supporting and implementing a network of nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organizations that will cover transportation costs to those who need it. When a polling location is closed or consolidated, it means filing public records requests for every single document, each and every time. It means disseminating voter education information more effectively.
It means working together, as a region, so that voting rights advocates can learn from one another and so that we can more effectively share our talent, resources, and networks. The most significant challenge confronting progressives in Louisiana is not a lack of interest; it is fragmentation, a lack of coordination, and it’s not the result of too many big egos in too small of a state. It’s because well-intentioned people simply aren’t aware of the ways in which their advocacy can be complemented and enriched by other well-intentioned people, and because far too many people are under the mistaken impression that a political party chooses its candidates, when, in reality, candidates choose their party.
In 2018, Southern Democrats and progressives suffered a string of big-ticket losses. Some of them were heartbreaking; some of them were surprisingly close; others were depressingly familiar. But there were a small handful that flipped the script, and there was at least one that taught us sometimes, when you decide to “go big or go home,” that home could be 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
One final note: Hacking suppression may also mean paying all of the costs necessary to ensure someone who needs an ID to vote can have that ID, which is what one brand-new organization in Louisiana will help to provide. That story is next.