Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a bill designed to protect the right to vote and fight racial discrimination in education, employment and public facilities. It was a hard-fought historic accomplishment, one that changed lives and made the promise of democracy more real.
Yesterday also marked another twist in the farcical campaign to be Mississippi’s Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, and it shows how far we still have to go.
Calling the recent runoff election a “sham,” candidate Chris McDaniel asked supporters to fund a legal challenge to overturn the election results. “”Thanks to illegal voting from liberal Democrats, my opponent stole last week’s runoff election,” said a McDaniel campaign email to supporters.
McDaniel’s legal effort isn’t the only challenge to the runoff; the right-wing group True the Vote also launched a suit alleging violations of election law.
Both groups are insisting that the Cochran team’s margin of victory – about 7,000 votes – is tainted by “invalid” votes. Their goal? To invalidate the entire election.
McDaniel’s statements about making sure “our Republican primary was won by Republican voters” make a lot of implications that aren’t supported by state law. Mississippi voters don’t register by party, so the only people – Republican or Democratic – who would be ineligible to participate in the runoff are those who already voted in the barely-contested Democratic primary.
Despite the plain facts of state law, McDaniel and his supporters are making an argument-by-assertion that the election he lost must have been unfair somehow.
Part of the problem is that McDaniel – who rose to prominence thanks to the support of Tea Party groups and right-wing talk radio – lives inside the bubble created by those institutions of the hard right.
Jay Cost, writing at the Weekly Standard, sums up the parallel universe in which the pro-McDaniel argument takes place. “The establishment’s primary season struggle is a leading indicator of its general election weaknesses,” Cost says. He claims that the lesson of Mississippi is that Republicans’ biggest problem is that voters don’t trust them to be tough on the “Leviathan” of federal spending, and that they instead need to be even more solicitous of McDaniel voters, rather than trying to appeal to people outside the Republican base. (Being indignant that every election is not a Republican primary is a common problem for Cost; after all, he spent 2012 as one of the loudest voices insisting Romney was stronger than the polls suggested, he reacted to Romney’s loss with a foot-stampy column arguing that he would have been right, except that Obama cheated by being preferable to more voters.)
“many of the McDaniel appeals in the runoff were like this: They appealed to people who were really into all the typical wingnut stuff; people for whom names like Mark Levin and Freedomworks would be meaningful; that is, people who had almost certainly already voted for McDaniel. They didn’t have a Plan B for expanding their electoral base — only for keeping it riled up. That’s why appealing to new voters worked so well for Cochran.”
McDaniel and his backers are like the proverbial fish that doesn’t know it’s wet; they swim so deeply in their right-wing milieu that the idea that they could lose an election fairly doesn’t cross their mind.
And there’s an even uglier undercurrent to all of this, centered around the fact that Cochran specifically reached out not just to Democratic voters, but to black voters (and in deeply polarized Mississippi, the Venn diagram of those two groups is almost a circle). With radio, phone calls and mail, Cochran made the case in Mississippi’s most heavily black counties that they should come out in the runoff to ensure that it would be Cochran, not McDaniel, as the GOP nominee in this very red state.
And it worked. Cochran’s biggest gains came in heavily black counties around Jackson and the Delta region, and turnout actually increased from the primary to the runoff. “They targeted voters outside the universe of likely voters in a Republican primary,” writes David Jarman, “that meant explicitly trying to make inroads among African-American voters…it seemed like a Hail Mary at the time … but looking at Tuesday night’s election results, it very clearly worked.”
The outrage among McDaniel voters goes beyond just sore-loserdom. Right-wingers’ assertion that Cochran’s votes were “invalid” tie into long-standing issues around black citizenship and black participation. You can see it in the hysteria over “vote fraud” in elections and even in the demands to see President Obama’s “long-form” birth certificate. You can see it in some McDaniel supporters’ insistence that black votes must have been bought, or “harvested…like cotton,” as a McDaniel supporter said on a Cochran campaign conference call. And the less said about Rush Limbaugh’s response, the better.
Jamelle Bouie notes that the McDaniel camp’s thinly-veiled implications have a long history. “For as long as blacks have been able to vote, there have been politicians who sought their support,” Bouie says, “and for just as long, there have been critics who called it unfair.”
True the Vote, now suing on McDaniel’s behalf, has a particularly grim record in this regard. For several election cycles now, they’ve been scaremongering about voting irregularities and fraud across the country, with questionable methods and laughably little evidence, and with a queasy-making racial subtext to their actions.
These problems date from the organization’s origins, as an offshoot of the Tea Party, in 2010:
“King Street Patriots—many of them aging white suburbanites—poured into polling places in heavily black and Hispanic neighborhoods around Houston, looking for signs of voter fraud. Reports of problems at the polls soon began surfacing in the Harris County attorney’s office and on the local news. The focus of these reports was not fraud, however, but alleged voter intimidation. Among other things, poll observers were accused of hovering over voters, blocking lines of people who were trying to cast ballots, and, in the words of Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke, ‘getting into election workers’ faces.’”
True the Vote turned its attention next to Wisconsin, where a battle over collective bargaining rights led to recall elections. Their top-line argument, again, was that they were preventing fraud; the results, though, looked more like an effort to dissuade the voters the “observers” just didn’t want voting:
“On Election Day, poll watchers appeared to have slowed voting to a crawl at Lawrence University in Appleton, where some students were attempting to register and vote on the same day.
Charlene Peterson, the city clerk in Appleton, said three election observers, including one from True the Vote, were so disruptive that she gave them two warnings.
‘They were making challenges of certain kinds and just kind of in physical contact with some of the poll workers, leaning over them, checking and looking,’ said John Lepinski, a poll watcher and former Democratic Party chairman for Outagamie County.
He said that as a result of the scrutiny, the line to register moved slowly. Finally, he said, some students gave up and left.”
In 2012, the New York Times compared True the Vote’s efforts to the old days of discriminatory voter suppression:
“This is how it works today: In an ostensible hunt for voter fraud, a Tea Party group, True the Vote, descends on a largely minority precinct and combs the registration records for the slightest misspelling or address error. It uses this information to challenge voters at the polls, and though almost every challenge is baseless, the arguments and delays frustrate those in line and reduce turnout.”
In Mississippi, the idea of mostly-white “observers” delaying and distracting black voters in heavily-black precincts, with demands that they prove their legitimacy as voters, has unpleasant historical echoes.
When those with a history of racial insensitivity – like McDaniel and True the Vote – start sputtering that an election marked by turnout increases in mostly-black counties is “illegal” or “stolen,” it shows that the fight for full voting rights isn’t done yet. The spectacle of conservatives trying to nullify an election because they didn’t like the electorate sends a strong message.
Five decades after the Civil Rights Act, a century and a half after the passage of the 15th Amendment, we’re still having to defend the idea that black votes count just as much as white ones, that candidates whose margin of victory comes from black voters really did win.
Seth D. Michaels is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He’s on Twitter as@sethdmichaels.