U.S. Election Notebook #9: Locking up the vote

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Locking Up the Vote - U.S. Election Notebook #9

June 8, 2012 – “A typical cell” (Ken Piorkowski, Wikimedia Commons)

In Glass ceilings and backlash, Athabasca University  Professor Paul Kellogg examined the shocking sexism frequently directed against presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. In our ninth of a series entitled U.S. Election Notebook, Kellogg looks at mass incarceration and its implications for U.S. electoral politics.


Donald Trump’s support amongst African-Americans is at historically low-levels – statistically zero in some polls. This is an extreme version of an old story. Running against Barack Obama, Mitt Romney could win just 6 per cent of African-American votes, John McCain just 4 per cent. Neither Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, nor Bob Dole could win more than 15 per cent of votes from that section of the electorate. The last Republican presidential candidate to win a majority of African-American votes was Herbert Hoover, in 1932. In the years since, Republicans have relied on winning consistently strong majorities among white voters in order to capture the presidency. Dwight Eisenhower secured the support of 59 per cent of white voters in 1956; Richard Nixon secured 68 per cent in 1972; and Ronald Reagan secured 66 per cent in 1984.

Explaining this can be quite confusing. The Democratic Party is the continuation of the party which prosecuted the Civil War in the mid-19th century to defend the Confederacy and protect the barbaric institution of slavery. The Republican Party in that war, was the party of Abraham Lincoln, the president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

We have to appreciate the significant transformations in the configuration of these two parties, transformations forced on them by the combined pressures of economic upheavals and mass social movements.

A history of numbers

The 1932 election – the last in which a majority of African-American voters supported a Republican – saw the election of Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president who initiated the New Deal policies to mitigate the effects of the terrible economic depression that decade. These policies were crucial to the economic survival of the poorest layers of U.S. society, and the poorest of the poor were African-Americans. Gunnar Myrdal captured the essence of this in 1944. The new ‘welfare state’ involved “housing, nutrition, medicine, education, relief and social security, wages and hours, working conditions, child and woman labor,” and by the end of World War II “the armed forces and the war industries.” These New Deal policies “changed the whole configuration” of race relations in the United States. Using the archaic language of another era, Myrdal said: “For almost the first time in the history of the nation the state has done something substantial in a social way without excluding the Negro.”

As a consequence, the New Deal era began a simultaneous process of changing the configuration of the two major parties. The New Deal “led to growing support of African-Americans for the Democratic Party,” and a drift of white voters from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

The massive social movement uprising we call the Civil Rights movement accelerated these party transformations. The Democratic Party – relying more and more on votes from the African-American community – in fits and starts, became a party which at least partially echoed the demands of the civil rights movement. This took years. In 1932, of the 1,154 delegates present at the Democratic National Convention, none (zero) were African-American. Only in 1968 did the number of African American delegates reach triple figures (209 out of 3,084), and only in 1972 did the number of delegates, as a proportion of the total, match or exceed African-American population share in the country as a whole. But this century, the story has been completely different. At every convention, more than 20 per cent of the delegates have been African-American. The contrast with the overwhelmingly white Republican National Conventions is striking. In 2016, “with 71 black delegates and alternates,” there were “nearly four times as many African-American Texas delegates to the Democratic National Convention as there were at the entire Republican convention.” The “100 Latino delegates to the Democratic convention” were “just 30 shy of the entire Republican convention.”

As more and more African-Americans found a home in the Democratic Party, the drift of white voters from Democratic Party to Republican Party, became a flood – an electoral version of what in city planning is called “white flight.”

Republican officials, according to author Dan Baum, were highly aware of their antagonistic relationship to the African-American community. In 1992, while researching an article on the war on drugs, Baum tracked down the notorious former Nixon aide, John Erlichman – whose career had gone from having the ear of the U.S. president, to serving time in jail for his illegal activities during Watergate, to where Baum found him, “in Atlanta, doing minority recruitment for an engineering firm,” replete with “a gigantic mountain-man beard.” When asked about the war on drugs, launched under Nixon’s watch, Erlichman “held out a hand to stop” the questions.

You want to know what this was really all about?’ he asked, with the weariness of a man who no longer had anything to protect. ‘The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House, after that, had two enemies: the antiwar Left, and black people … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’ ~ Nixon aide, John Erlichman, 1992

This shocking admission of duplicity has not gone unchallenged. Erlichman’s family members are contesting the story. But what is incontestable, is that a “war on drugs” did occur, and since its launch, we have seen a systematic and shocking increase in incarceration rates, particularly for African-Americans. From having rates of incarceration about 50 per cent higher than in Canada through much of the 1950s and 1960s, by the 21st century, the U.S. was incarcerating people at a rate seven times higher than in Canada.

Locking up the vote

The prison population is extremely racialized.

Of those behind bars in 2011, about 60 per cent were minorities (858,000 blacks and 464,000 Hispanics). The largest impact of the prison buildup has been on poor, minority men. African American men born since the late 1960s are more likely to have served time in prison than to have completed college with a four-year degree.

Most striking is this observation from Michelle Alexander: “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.”

This is highly relevant to any discussion of electoral politics in the United States, including a discussion of the 2016 elections.

Forty-eight states do not permit prison inmates to vote, 32 states disenfranchise felons on parole, and 28 states prohibit probationers from voting … 2 per cent of the nation on average cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction. Of African-American males, 13 per cent are disenfranchised; in seven states, one in four are permanently barred from voting. In Florida alone, nearly one third of all black men are permanently disenfranchised.

Tense contest

Florida, along with Ohio, are the penultimate swing states – always a tense contest between Democrats and Republicans. Without these felony disenfranchisement laws, Florida would stop swinging. George W. Bush would have lost to Al Gore in 2000, Trump would have no chance against Clinton. Florida would be solidly in the Democratic camp. It is only when whole swathes of votes are kept under lock and key, that Florida becomes Republican.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, as Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton builds up a substantial lead, Republican candidate Donald Trump has begun to argue about the possibility of election fraud. There is little factual basis for his concern about too many people voting. A Loyola Law School study could identify just 35 instances of voter fraud between 2000 and 2014 – 35 out of more than 800 million votes cast. The emphasis on “too many voters” distracts from the real issue in the United States – the long history of “too few voters,” a history of systemic barriers preventing access to the ballot box for people of colour.

In the next post, entitled The New Jim Crow, Paul Kellogg explores Michelle Alexander’s important re-framing of contemporary U.S. politics.

U.S. Election Notebook #1: Grief of the Parents
U.S. Election Notebook #2: Memories of Goldwater
U.S. Election Notebook #3: Calculus of ‘misspeaking’
U.S. Election Notebook #4: Birther origins
U.S. Election Notebook #5: Memories of George Wallace
U.S. Election Notebook #6: The Colour Line
U.S. Election Notebook #7: Glass ceilings & backlash
U.S. Election Notebook #8: Slaves in the White House
U.S. Election Notebook #9: Locking up the vote
U.S. Election Notebook #10: The New Jim Crow
U.S. Election Notebook #11: Not a dime’s worth of difference?
U.S. Election Notebook #12: ‘A sort of public and psychological wage’
U.S. Election Notebook #13: Political futures

Paul Kellogg (Ph.D. Queen’s, M.A. York) is an Associate Professor, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Master of Arts – Integrated Studies Program, Athabasca University. Among his courses at Athabasca is POLI 345, “American Government and Politics”. He is the author of Escape from the Staple Trap: Canadian Political Economy After Left-Nationalism (University of Toronto Press, 2015). His teaching and research interests are political economy, social movements and global governance.

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