There’s plenty to unpack about the Senate race in Alabama. As a referendum on racism and misogyny and how different demographics respond to them, the election provides reams of data. Sixty-eight percent of white voters went for Roy Moore, despite the allegations of sexual misconduct, his comments about the United States being great when slavery was still widespread, and his co-authoring of a course that argued women shouldn’t hold office. Meanwhile, black voters chose Doug Jones by overwhelming margins, with 96 percent casting their votes for him.
As a referendum on how black voters are treated, by political parties and in political narratives, this election will also provide data points. As is often the case, the concerns of black working-class voters were ignored until their votes were needed, and now black voters are being thanked for “saving America.” It’s a common trope: Black votes are credited or blamed for election wins and losses, regardless of how well a white candidate addressed the needs of the black community.
But the real story in Alabama isn’t that white voters went for Moore, or that black voters deserve the thanks of liberal white America. The real story is voter suppression, and how it could have tipped this race in Moore’s favor.
In the face of Jones’s win, it’s been too easy to ignore the attack on the black vote in Alabama. Tactics like demanding photo IDs to vote and then closing 31 Department of Motor Vehicles offices in rural, predominantly black counties might not appear to have been effective. But the tactic was only derailed because lawsuits forced the state to reopen those offices and expand their hours. Clarifying which crimes did or did not disqualify a former convict from voting may have opened the door for more disenfranchised voters to regain their rights, but that law was only defined recently, and the list still leaves out many who have served their time, thus laying the groundwork for years of infringements. Gerrymandering efforts to draw district boundaries in ways that benefited the Republican Party in Alabama were only subverted because of lawsuits filed by the Legislative Black Caucus. After 12 of the 36 districts in contention were found to have been drawn in ways that violated the law, the legislature was prevented from using the new maps in this year’s election.
Relying on lawsuits to tackle the problem of voter suppression is a losing strategy. No ground is ever gained, because the battle is always about making up what’s been lost. And this isn’t just an Alabama problem. Under the guise of concerns about voter fraud, 14 states have taken steps to make voting more difficult for marginalized communities. In reality, while former voters are occasionally not expunged from the rolls because of poorly staffed electoral commissions, actual voter impersonation is incredibly rare. Meanwhile, spurious claims of voter fraud led to the creation of a vanity commission that is already imploding.
Despite a historic turnout for a special election, efforts to keep black voters from the polls almost succeeded. Voters arrived at the polls in Alabama and were told they could not vote for reasons as ridiculous as not remembering what county they were born in, polls were woefully understaffed in some areas, and some reported that police officers were present and attempting to check voters for outstanding warrants. The fact that these tactics didn’t work this time is meaningless if efforts aren’t made to prevent them being used in the next election and all the ones that follow. Democrats and independents need to stand up to efforts to limit access to voting regardless of how bizarre the justifications may be for tactics that create unnecessary barriers.
Wooing black voters by pointing out “well, the other guy thinks slavery was okay” isn’t a sound methodology for any political party, much less the one that claims to be progressive. And the sad reality is that the Democratic candidate barely squeaked out a win against an opponent with a cartoonishly terrible record. A vote for Jones wasn’t a ringing endorsement of him. It wasn’t a vote to prove how far Alabama has come since the days of violence in Selma. It wasn’t a vote to save white evangelicals from themselves, either. It was a vote of self-defense. It was a vote to hopefully improve conditions in a state that, according to a U.N. official, has the worst poverty in the developed world. It’s not enough for Democrats to count on black voters continuing to reject the party that so often trades in racism. They must actively work to protect voting rights for all Americans.
That means rebuilding the Voting Rights Act. It means making voter registration automatic when a state ID card or driver’s license is issued. It means restoring the right to vote to those who have lost it because of criminal convictions. No one should have to live under a system where they don’t have the right to have a voice in it. Voting isn’t a cure-all, democracy isn’t remotely perfect, but until we come up with a better system, we must make the best of what we have. Instead of pouring millions of dollars into a campaign like Jon Ossoff’s, where he didn’t even live in the district he was contesting, perhaps the Democrats could invest that money in fighting these tactics in every state, whether it’s Alabama or North Carolina. Instead of filing lawsuits after the fact, Democrats in every jurisdiction could put their energy toward retaining early voting, weekend polling places and other measures that make voting accessible for every citizen.