Vladimir Putin wanted Donald Trump to be president of the United States, and the Russian government deliberately tried to help him win the election. It requires genuine effort to believe otherwise; anyone paying attention for the past year could see how Putin and Trump have fawned over each other, and how Trump’s policy and Cabinet picks appear tailor-made to please the Russian despot. Now, thanks to a Washington Post report, we’ve learned that the CIA came to the same conclusion, declaring that Russia provided hacked Democratic National Committee emails to WikiLeaks as “part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt [Hillary] Clinton’s chances.”
Trump and his inner circle rejected the CIA’s intelligence immediately. Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton even used the language of conservative conspiracy theorists, suggesting that the Russian hacking was a “false flag” operation. On the flip side, former acting CIA director Michael Morell called the revelations “the political equivalent of 9/11.”
There’s a lot of heat around this story, and deservedly so. America has meddled in any number of elections outside our borders, but that’s not cause to casually dismiss this news as chickens coming home to roost. Any foreign power mucking around with democratic elections should be dealt with seriously — especially since it looks as though Russia is about to do it again in Germany. But even as senators like John McCain and Mitch McConnell have called for investigations into the Russian interference, we’ve seen a discernible lack of outrage from them over their own party’s provably successful effort to cheat certain Americans out of a fair election. This is no small oversight, given that their new leader can’t seem to stop bragging about the triumph of Republican-led voter suppression — something he did again last Friday night.
“The African-American community was great to us,” Trump told a nearly all-white gathering in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on December 9. “They came through, big league. Big league.” This echoed the patronizing language he used in the campaign to brag about his (meager) black support, but this time Trump wasn’t talking about those African-Americans who fell for his act. “And frankly if they had any doubt, they didn’t vote, and that was almost as good because a lot of people didn’t show up, because they felt good about me.”
Before Friday night, we didn’t know Trump’s “thank you” tour would include any appreciation for black voters at all. Few, if any, supported him. Trump received only 8 percent of black votes, which, to be fair, was an improvement upon Mitt Romney’s 6 percent in 2012. Trump might argue that his patronizing screeds about our lethal, jobless neighborhoods was what got that number up, but the lack of a fully functional Voting Rights Act was a more likely culprit. And as we focus on Putin’s efforts to steer our election, let’s also look at Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts, a believer in a colorblind America and a longtime opponent of the VRA. The damage he did is even more quantifiable.
Roberts led the majority decision in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, nullifying the VRA’s Section 5. This had required 16 states with especially awful legacies of racial discrimination to have any new voting laws approved by the federal government. In getting rid of this section, Roberts effectively neutered the entire law; voter suppression was still illegal, but the main tool for policing it was gone. A National Commission on Voting Rights report released last year indicated that more than 3,000 changes to state voting laws were blocked between the Act’s inception in 1965 and 2013. That’s more than 3,000 changes that didn’t pass muster with the feds. But this year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, 14 states had new restrictions in place.
In the first presidential election in half a century without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, the effects were obvious. There were at least 868 fewer polling places across the nation in 2016, leading to long lines at those that still existed. Voters were recklessly, and perhaps illegally, purged from the rolls. Even if courts had stepped in to invalidate new state voting restrictions, there were reports that election workers were enforcing them anyway. Frivolous voter-ID laws, dependent upon the fiction of a voter-fraud epidemic, kept citizens from being able to vote. Republicans often dismiss the difficulty many face when trying to obtain proper identification, ignoring that the requirement itself is like a 21st-century poll tax. But there are real obstacles, most of which affect communities of color.
Even for those with IDs, confusing laws can create unnecessary hurdles. Shortly after the election, I was a guest on a Wisconsin public radio show when a white woman called to say that she was turned away at the polls for not having a driver’s license — despite having other forms of identification and mail on her. Since she’d had several surgeries and used a walker, it wasn’t practical for her to go home and then return to wait in line again.
Wisconsin was only one of several key states that went for Obama in 2012, then saw voter participation drop in 2016 — and, not incidentally, went for Trump. While acknowledging Hillary Clinton’s failure to attract and turn out black voters in urban strongholds like Milwaukee, ascribing all the blame for her loss to poor campaign strategy is incomplete. Wisconsin’s strict voter-ID law was allowed to proceed in 2016 despite earlier court rulings that softened it. Jill Stein’s recount showed that Trump won the state by 22,748 votes, a little less than the average attendance at a Milwaukee Brewers game. Yet as many as 300,000 Wisconsin voters in 2014 lacked the proper identification under the discriminatory and unnecessary law. No one knows how many of them got that ID before November’s election, or how many of those 300,000 would’ve voted for Clinton. The point is that the law made it harder for Wisconsin residents to vote, and it could have very well made a difference in the state’s voting results.
With Trump in office, voter suppression will only become more endemic. This is the same guy who empowered his flock to patrol the polls illegally, especially in “certain” cities with high concentrations of black residents. His campaign was explicit about running “voter suppression” operations. Since the election, Trump has used his bully pulpit on Twitter to post easily debunked lies about “millions” of illegal votes, and to signal a forthcoming assault on voting rights during his administration. One of the people who helped the president-elect spread that lie was Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, who is now advising Trump on immigration. Kobach wrote Arizona’s discriminatory “show me your papers” immigration law — requiring immigrants to have documentation available at the demand of a law enforcement officer — and has become one of the most visible evangelists for state voting restrictions. Trump’s pick for attorney general, “career racist” Jeff Sessions, also has a “record of hostility” to voting rights, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Common-sense reforms such as automatic voter registration and felon re-enfranchisement likely have no chance in the upcoming administration.
We’re facing a Trump White House and a Congress dominated by the party that takes pride in making it more difficult for people to vote. Republican policies have failed Americans for generations, and are no longer sufficient to win national or even state elections on their own. But the principal reason the Voting Rights Act remains necessary is because American government has never been predisposed to granting full citizenship to African-Americans without significant pressure and regulation. When the laws that blatantly uphold white supremacy are rejected, subtler structures are put in place to hold it aloft. Elections are the best chance to guide the direction of a nation, but they don’t work when one party is willing to limit access to the ballot to maintain power.
The outrage over the Russian hacking on Trump’s behalf is fitting, if only because it’s horrifying that Putin may soon have a lackey sitting in the Oval Office. But we should all be just as upset and alarmed over the election-rigging that originated right here at home. Republicans will never call for investigations into their own party colleagues who sought to rig the election and succeeded. The best institution for holding these politicians to account is the very one they’ve sabotaged.