“Because it looks clinical and bureaucratic, we don’t pay attention to it,” says Carol Anderson, an African American–studies professor at Emory University and the author of One Person, No Vote, an exhaustive review of modern voter-suppression efforts.
“These states have been really good about making Jim Crow 2.0 seem reasonable,” Anderson told me. “This is massive disenfranchisement that is slow and corrosive. We don’t see it the way we see cross burnings and riots and beatings. What instead happens is you frustrate people out of their basic right.”
As Anderson told me, the thing about the suppression-by-frustration regime is that it provides dozens of potential exit points for voters burdened by bureaucracy. “You have to punch a clock to go to work,” she said. “If you go to the polls on Tuesday and your name’s not on the rolls, now what are you going to do? So you’re either going to go to work anyway because you can’t afford to lose pay, or you’re going to have to take some vacation leave.” Include in that calculus the process of obtaining identification in the first place, the potentially long lines on Election Day, and the fact that provisional ballots for people with discrepancies can require even more paperwork and time off, and the true costs of voting become clear.
On Election Day, it’s worth remembering just how Jim Crow elections worked. Yes, black people were lynched for attempting to vote—a history particularly salient in Georgia. The extralegal components of the system were real and dangerous, and they claimed countless lives.
But Jim Crow states were also administrative states, and the bureaucracies they developed came about as a result of a drive among powerful white politicians to discriminate within the bounds of federal law. That meant poll taxes and literacy tests, which were originally perfectly legal. It also meant recitations of preambles, long walks to county registrars, and frustration even among black people who somehow managed to register and vote. It meant all-white primaries and at-large districts and intense gerrymandering. It relied on obsessive tinkering along the margins to come up with a system that was de jure passable under the Constitution, but in the aggregate became a de facto impossible impediment for black people voting in any real numbers. In order to build their regime, southern officials needed to build mazes.
Those are important considerations for this election, and for elections to come. Regardless of the outcomes of individual races—and even perhaps because of them, if Republicans face major losses—the incentives for disenfranchising black and Latino voters may only be increasing as their share of the electorate increases, and as they steadily back Democratic candidates. And that’s as the main tool for protecting voters, the VRA, has been rendered partially inert. In places like Georgia, the rudiments of a labyrinth appear to already be in place.