Democratic Leaders Are Betraying Black Voters

If the Democratic Party is not upholding a racist double standard with its inaction, it is at least acquiescing to one.

Blurry photo of people sorting through boxes of papers.
David Goldman / AP

About the author: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.

Democratic leaders have a plan for overcoming the Republican Party’s attempts to restrict the franchise: Just vote harder.

Civil-rights leaders expressed their frustrations to The New York Times last week, telling the outlet that “White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression.’”

Following Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, Republican-led states have engaged in a massive campaign to narrow voting access, spurred on by the falsehood that Trump’s loss was the result of widespread voter fraud. Despite Republicans losing both houses of Congress and the White House during the Trump years, the former president’s relatively strong 2020 showing left Democrats with thin margins in the House and Senate, and key Democrats are unwilling to alter Senate rules in order to pass voting-rights legislation by a simple majority. The position of Democratic leaders is perhaps less a plan than what they believe is their only course of action.

Unfortunately, the Republican scheme to insulate the party’s political power from accountability to the American majority cannot be overcome by enthusiasm. Despite the other ideological divisions within the party, all elements of the GOP have long been on the same page when it comes to using the countermajoritarian levers of American democracy to shield themselves from the electorate.

In 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts gutted a key section of the Voting Rights Act by deploying a dubious legal doctrine with no textual roots in the Constitution, arguing that racism was a thing of the past. In 2019, after a flood of partisan voting laws targeting Democratic constituencies, the conservatives on the Court gave their blessing to partisan gerrymandering, in effect granting Republicans permission to discriminate on the basis of race so long as they argued that they were targeting voters because they were Democrats, not because they were Black. In 2021, the Court continued its effort to read the Fifthteenth Amendment out of the Constitution, finding that barely any discriminatory restrictions would run afoul of the Voting Rights Act absent the most concrete proof of intent to discriminate. The trend is consistent; as long as plausible deniability is maintained, any discriminatory act is kosher. Given that most of the Court’s conservatives supported the Trump administration’s attempt to use the census to effect a nationwide racial gerrymander even after the racist intent behind the scheme and subsequent cover-up was revealed, the conservative wing’s definition of plausible deniability is generous to the point of incredulity.

Republicans have insisted that these restrictions are needed to fight voter fraud. But over a period of decades Republican prosecutors have failed to produce anything in the same galaxy as widespread voter fraud, and they similarly failed in the last election. What they conceive of as fraud is simply their political opponents successfully contesting elections; conservative defeat is all the proof of “fraud” that is needed.

Republicans have proved willing to play constitutional hardball to win such victories, holding open a vacancy on the Court when Democrats were in the White House and then filling one in the closing days of an election when a Republican was president. Democrats, by contrast, have refused to pursue constitutional but aggressive measures—rejecting federal voting-rights legislation, the admission of new states, and changing the size of the Supreme Court—instead telling their at-risk constituencies to simply vote harder next time.

Democratic complacency can be explained by several factors. One is that, by themselves, voting restrictions have sometimes backfired, motivating the targeted constituencies to show up rather than have their votes suppressed. Another is that the ideological divisions within the caucus mean that Democrats remain short of the necessary votes in the Senate to change the rules in the chamber, which would allow them to pass voting-rights legislation with a simple majority. A third is the fact that many in the Democratic Party take Black votes for granted because they believe that racism in the Republican Party gives those voters no viable alternative. Too many Democratic Party leaders think nothing of demanding that Black voters show up in numbers sufficient to rescue American democracy every election and then do little to secure the rights of their most loyal constituents once they are elected.

If the Democratic Party is not upholding a racist double standard with its inaction, it is at least acquiescing to one. The targeted constituencies must treat every election cycle as though their fundamental rights are on the line, listen to Democratic leaders compare the voting restrictions targeting their right to the franchise as “the new Jim Crow,” and then watch those same leaders do nothing with the power they are given except tell them to simply out-organize those attempting to deprive them of their right to vote.

This pattern cannot be repeated forever. Eventually, Republicans will figure out effective schemes for minimizing the power of Democratic constituencies in order to limit the impact of so-called blue waves at the ballot box. It does not matter how many Democratic votes are cast if those votes are gerrymandered into vote-sinks that preserve Republican majorities at the state and federal levels. Organizing cannot overcome laws that allow partisan election officials to refuse to certify victories when their party is defeated. And if Republican legislatures pass proposals allowing state houses to overturn the results, the question of who wins the most votes will become moot. Historically, such attacks on the franchise have not succeeded indefinitely, but they can still have immediate and catastrophic consequences for historically marginalized communities whose votes no longer matter to those in power.

Should these Republican restrictions succeed, they will not only strengthen the ability of the GOP to win without a majority of the electorate—they will also shape the electorate itself by enhancing the political power of the GOP’s base at the expense of the rest of the country. That would move the political leadership of the United States significantly to the right of where it is today. The rhetoric of Democratic Party leaders portrays this as a crisis of democracy, particularly for the constituencies they claim to serve. Their inaction suggests otherwise.