On Jan. 10, the news site Urban Milwaukee published excerpts from a post-midterms memo sent by a state Republican Party official to other local members of the GOP. The email, though clogged with needlessly capitalized common nouns, is worth reading as written:
In the City of Milwaukee, with the 4th Congressional District Republican Party working very closely with the RPW, RNC, Republican Assembly & Senate Campaign Committees, Statewide Campaigns and RPMC in the Black and Hispanic areas, we can be especially proud of the City of Milwaukee (80.2% Dem Vote) casting 37,000 less votes than cast in the 2018 election with the major reduction happening in the overwhelming Black and Hispanic areas.
The memo, written by a man named Robert Spindell, went on to describe these depressed turnout figures as a “great and important decrease in Democrat votes in the City” that was brought about by a “well thought out multi-faceted plan” including a “substantial & very effective Republican Coordinated Election Integrity program resulting with lots of Republican paid Election Judges & trained Observers & extremely significant continued Court Litigation.”
What does Spindell mean by “Republican Coordinated Election Integrity program”? And why did he capitalize election integrity but not program?
The answer to the latter question may never be known, but a recent Associated Press piece about Spindell’s message addresses the former:
Under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Republicans in Wisconsin flexed their muscle to implement a voter ID proposal and limit the days and hours of early voting. The conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court last year enacted other GOP priorities when it outlawed ballot drop boxes and said voters cannot have someone else return a ballot on their behalf. Courts also have limited clerks’ abilities to fill in missing ballot information, such as incomplete addresses.
Ah, so making it harder to vote—a phenomenon otherwise known, especially by Democrats and voting-rights activists, as voter suppression.
I qualify that term because it is not a universally agreed upon characterization. The National Review has run at least 17 articles about the so-called myth of voter suppression. It has also been a frequent subject of would-be debunking on Fox News.
The phrase voter suppression has likewise been described as alarmist and inappropriate by conservative figures, including Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who present themselves as relatively sane and reasonable. Indeed within the past month, former Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer, who voted to impeach Trump, wrote in a Twitter thread that Democrats’ “nebulous claims of ‘voter suppression’ ” were analogous to the theories about rigged voting machines and Italian satellite interference and so forth that animated Jan. 6.
At issue, of course, is the charge—inherent in the phrase—that voter suppression is discriminatory. No one likes to be called a racist! But are we to believe that limitations on voting in the U.S. are not often inspired by a discriminatory impulse? Especially after reading Spindell’s message about being “proud” of the “major reduction” in voting that his party achieved in “Black and Hispanic areas”? (For the record, Spindell said, in a follow-up interview with the AP, “The last thing I want to do is suppress votes,” so … that’s what he said.)
Let’s pull back: The Brennan Center for Justice counts 15 other Republican-run states in which restrictive laws have been passed since 2020. Many of these laws were passed after Donald Trump and his supporters said or insinuated that Black voters and election officials cheated Trump out of votes or added votes for Joe Biden during that year’s election. Rudy Giuliani alleged, for instance, that two Black election workers in Atlanta abetted fraud by passing USB drives to each other “as if they were vials of heroin or cocaine.” (Not subtle.)
No actionable evidence of organized fraud or ballot box–stuffing ever emerged after 2020 , even in states under the jurisdiction of Republican prosecutors. (The election workers in Atlanta testified that the item passed between them was a ginger mint.) Still, laws were enacted swiftly that limited the methods of voting known to be disproportionately used by members of minority groups.
Consider some possibly correlated phenomena: Black voter turnout has declined since its most recent peak in 2012. Latino voter turnout typically lags the national average. And Democrats’ margin of victory among both Black and Latino Americans who do vote has been gradually shrinking (though it didn’t shrink as much in 2022 as some preelection forecasts predicted). The detailed data that will allow researchers to understand how restrictive laws influenced 2022 turnout is still being released and assembled, but Spindell’s email suggests that at least one reason Democrats might not be banking the traditional margins among these voters has to do with the fact that Republicans are designing laws to stop them from voting.
All of this seems simple enough. But much of the discussion of the Democrats’ “problems” with Black and Latino voters, whether in newspaper opinion sections or between strategists like James Carville and Ruy Texeira, is about what would seem to be a different topic altogether—namely, whether the institutional Democratic Party has become too dominated by college graduates whose condescending social liberalism alienates working-class voters of color.
One manifestation of the allegedly off-putting wokeness that often comes up in this discourse is the use of academic or “ideological” phrases like systemic racism. This is what strategist David Shor said about the topic in 2021 in a conversation with New York magazine’s Eric Levitz:
As white liberals increasingly define the party’s image and messaging, that’s going to turn off nonwhite conservative Democrats and push them against us. … In liberal circles, racism has been defined in highly ideological terms. And this theoretical perspective on what racism means and the nature of racial inequality have become a big part of the group identity of college-educated Democrats, white and nonwhite. But it’s not necessarily how most nonwhite, working-class people understand racism.
Influential center-left pundit Matt Yglesias took issue with the phrase voter suppression even more specifically when Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer used it in January 2022.
It’s difficult to quantify how damaging the use of a specific academic concept or phrase like systemic racism or voter suppression is to Democratic politicians, though some polling groups have nonetheless made admirable efforts toward doing so.
But many Democrats clearly believe Shor is correct—as do many Republicans, most significantly Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Perhaps no other conservative politician has jumped on the idea that voters hate Democrats for their high-minded academia-ness than DeSantis.
In his time in office, DeSantis has passed many laws, including a “Stop WOKE Act” that essentially seeks (among other things) to prohibit claims about systemic racism from being made by teachers and employers. This month, the state also announced that it would not allow a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies to be offered in its high schools, saying that the curriculum was “contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”
Separately, interestingly, Florida has passed restrictive voting laws under DeSantis that have added steps to the mail voting process, limited the availability of ballot drop boxes, increased the amount that voter-registration groups can be fined for failing to meet filing deadlines, and created an election police force that made showy arrests of 20 ex-felons last fall for allegedly committing voter fraud. (A follow-up report by NPR suggests that many of those charges will be dismissed or result in plea bargains for which the “convicted” individuals will face literally no punishment.)
How is one supposed to respond to this reality without making some sort of claim about “the nature of racial inequality”? Woke language may have its costs, but so does actual systemic racism, whether it shows up in limits on education or limits on voting. It’s a conundrum that creates moments like this one, from a speech Biden gave at a Martin Luther King Day event:
“The idea—if we can hold a second here—the idea that we’re supposed to remain silent on the abuses of the past, as if they didn’t occur?” the president asked, referring broadly to the backlash, led by DeSantis and others, against education that takes race into account. “That’s not being ‘woke’; that’s being honest. That’s talking about history.”
To be pedantic, though, remembering the abuses of the past (and raising consciousness about their legacy) is what being woke means, or originally meant. Speaking of which: A few days before Biden’s speech, his administration announced a $31 million real-estate discrimination (or “redlining”) settlement, the largest ever of its kind, with California’s City National Bank. According to the government, only 3 of City National’s 37 branches were in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, despite Los Angeles County being 60 percent Black or Latino; the bank purportedly accepted six times fewer loan applications in Black or Latino areas than did some of its competitors.
Still, with the way things are, you could see why Biden felt he had to say that being “woke” isn’t what it is. Or was.
Continued the president, after the comment quoted above:
Well, folks, we have a lot of unfinished work to do, though. A lot of unfinished work. We have to keep building on it and defend our progress, because this new Congress—this new Congress … (sighs) … (laughter)
Pause, sighs, laughter. Indeed.