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How Trump's legal battles to overturn the election undermine the Black vote

"Historically, any time there's been access to the ballot box extended to Black voters, there's always been a backlash and effort to curtail that," said lawyer John Cusick.
Image: President Donald J. Trump
President Donald Trump exits Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Feb. 7.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

ATLANTA — For the Rev. Steve Bland, the day's agenda was dominated by one thing.

He drove about 90 miles west from Detroit, where he is the senior pastor of the Liberty Temple Baptist Church, to Lansing, Michigan. With several members of the state’s Interfaith Council, Bland stood on the steps of the Capitol complex where the Michigan Board of Canvassers would vote on whether to certify the November general election ballot counts.

The group prayed that the board’s four members — including two Republicans — would reject the baseless claims made by President Donald Trump and his allies that something was wrong with the ballots cast in Detroit and other cities around the country with large Black populations.

Bland, president of the region’s Council of Baptist Pastors, and other clergy took turns praying that voters in Detroit, where half of that state’s Black population resides, would see their legal rights stand.

"What we are seeing, in this press of activities here in Michigan and around the country," Bland said as he drove toward Lansing, "what we have witnessed is a fight to remain in the grips of total white domination or to accept that Black voters and the ballots they cast are every bit as essential and definitive in what this country can and should be as anyone else's. Anything less is not a democracy but it would be sadly very consistent with the pattern of American history."

The day after the election, a clip of Bland went viral. In it, he declared Black Americans had gone from "picking cotton to picking presidents." Now he was praying for the fate of democracy, with the nation’s long and sordid history of undermining Black election participation squarely in his mind.

In each of the states where the Trump team has challenged the election outcome or Republican members of boards of election have hesitated to certify results, there has been a consistent theme: The problem areas, the places where they have expressed nonspecific wrongdoing and fraud, without clear evidence, have significant Black populations.

Philadelphia is 42.3 percent Black, Detroit is 78.6 percent Black and nearly 52 percent of Atlanta residents are Black. The challenges to these votes tap a rich and productive vein of voter suppression. Now, as Trump and his supporters continue to lob unsupported claims of voting irregularities and fraud, they appear to be reviving a tradition of Black voter exclusion in the United States.

"The question is not, is this a challenge to democracy or Black voting rights, anti-democratic activity or racism," Bland said. "It is not either or, but both. In the United States of America you cannot have one without the other. Simply look what has happened in the more distant past and then, the last three weeks."

First, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and suggested a series of seemingly race-neutral actions related to election security. Toss out any ballot from an area with a high rate of nonmatching signatures, Graham said, according to Raffensperger and others on the call.

The practice of signature matching is typically used for absentee and mail-in ballots: Election officials will match the signature on the ballot with that voter’s registration or other forms for identity verification.

Proponents of the signature match process insist that it bolsters election security. Opponents’ most prescient argument against signature match policies is that Black voters have long been more likely than others to see their ballots rejected. So, had Georgia followed Graham’s request and refused to count any ballot from an area with an unusual number of signature match problems, the move would almost certainly have nullified votes cast in areas with large numbers of Black and Latino voters or new citizens, groups which Trump did not carry.

In Georgia and several other states with signature matching requirements, so many ballots cast by Black voters were rejected that a group of Democratic Party organizations, joined by civil rights organizations, brought a suit challenging Georgia's signature match law in 2018.

The resulting court-ordered settlement and subsequent change in Georgia’s election law granted those whose signatures had been challenged three days to prove their identity. Those who do will see their votes counted. Two years later, following his narrow loss in the state, Trump tweeted furiously — and inaccurately — that election officials were no longer allowed to check signatures or reject ballots.

Then at a Washington press conference last week, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, claimed the president’s campaign had identified 300,000 “illegitimate ballots” cast in Michigan.

He offered no evidence supporting his claims but suggested Trump would be the victor there, if the results in Wayne County, which includes Detroit and about half the state’s Black population, were just excluded.

Wayne County election officials claimed that irregularities existed only in Detroit, leaving Republican members of the election board initially willing to certify only results in the predominantly white suburbs outside Detroit. The officials then reversed course, certifying all the results but later insisted they regretted the decision to do so.

Trump operatives also claimed that massive fraud had shaped the outcomes in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and the area around Madison, Wisconsin. Each of those cities are in key swing states. Most also have larger-than-average Black populations.

Then, on Monday in Georgia, it all came full circle when the Trump campaign asked the state to do a machine recount of all the ballots cast in the state. Those same ballots have already been counted mostly by machine in the days after the election, then subjected to a full hand recount and an audit.

In Michigan, the state election board certified its ballot count, with one Republican member abstaining from voting.

A Trump supporter, at left, demonstrating against the presidential election results, argues with a counter protestor at the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Nov. 8, 2020.David Goldman / AP file

The pattern is clear, said John Cusick, a litigation fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who focuses much of his work on voting rights.

"Historically, any time there’s been access to the ballot box extended to Black voters, there's always been a backlash and effort to curtail that," Cusick said. "That’s the American tradition at this point. Those who have been at the forefront of the pursuit of racial justice and equity have been regarded as a threat to the country when what they really are, what their direct access to the ballot box is really a direct threat to white supremacy."

Trump's laser focus on predominantly Black cities is not the only evidence that the tradition continues, Cusick said. Even the language used to describe the demands for selective inquiries into voting in Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Milwaukee echo the language of Jim Crow-era segregationists, he said.

In the period just after the Voting Rights Act became law and began to make real the earlier promises of the 15th and 19th Amendments for Black men and women, elected officials such as the Dallas County, Alabama, Sheriff Jim Clark insisted that Black votes should simply be thrown out to protect the "integrity" and "security" of elections.

While in office, Clark so brutally enforced Jim Crow strictures that he ordered officers to beat, teargas and forcibly march groups of Black citizens away from public buildings. Mounted officers under Clark’s command also beat a group of protesters marching over the Edmund Pettus Bridge with such ferocity, the day, March 7, 1965, became known as Bloody Sunday. Images of the brutality were broadcast on national television and, some say it helped to prompt Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act later that year.

In 1966, Clark lost a Democratic Party primary to Wilson Baker, a former Selma director of public safety. Clark publicly described the primary as an "illegitimate election," Cusick said.

Clark pressured the Dallas County Democratic Executive Committee to reject six boxes of ballots from Black precincts in Selma where voters favored Baker. The Department of Justice took county election officials to court. Once there, the court listened to Clark’s claims but, as Ari Berman wrote in his 2015 book, "Give Us the Ballot," no evidence emerged that, "votes were bought or sold, that boxes were stuffed, or that there was any misconduct on the part of polling officials or voters which could be construed as even approaching fraud."

Now, Cusick said, "in this coded way what we are hearing again are the same kind of racist tropes about illegitimate and legitimate ballots, about voters and suspicion despite a lack of evidence of anyone engaged in actual wrongdoing. True integrity means access to the ballot box, not burdensome efforts to restrict it."

In other communities, the effort to bar Black voter participation came in the form of poll taxes and tests in which Black residents were told to answer questions like how many bubbles could be formed from a bar of soap. Some were asked to guess correctly how many beans were contained in an election administrator's jar.

"What the president's team is trying to do in Michigan, what they are trying to do in Georgia," Bland said, "is simply today's version of the bubble test."

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

The implication in Georgia and Michigan appears to be that Black people don't know how to vote, Black public officials don’t know how to count or can’t be trusted to do so, Bland said.

And, he added, "we know how to count to 270." That it is the number of electoral college votes that a presidential candidate needs to be declared the winner.

Bertrall Ross, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the marginalization of the poor in the American political process, said Trump's narrative about the election has been premised on the idea that there are patriotic or real Americans. These are white people who live in red states or rural areas who loyally support him. Everyone else, but primarily African Americans, are denigrated and labeled as foreigners, anarchists, radicals and criminals.

"The baseless allegations of voter fraud in majority Black areas," Ross said, "fits neatly this narrative as Trump supporters have already been primed to believe in the inherent deviance of African Americans and therefore willingly accept the idea that African Americans engaged in criminal activity to corrupt the election results."

In 2015, Trump launched his primary campaign describing Mexican immigrants as rapists and throughout his presidency described diverse cities as hellholes and those represented by Black officials as far worse.

"Racial resentment is the glue that keeps the disparate Republican coalition of economic and corporate elites and working class whites together," Ross said. "By triggering racial resentment, Trump appeared to hope that Republican voters, elected officials and judges would join together in a partisan effort to act contrary to the will of the people on the basis of the idea that votes of the people of color who supported Joe Biden did not deserve equal weight."

Greg Lewis, executive director of Souls to the Polls, a nonpartisan organization in Milwaukee that sought to increase voter turnout, said that what Trump and his allies are doing is irresponsible. Trump is feeding his base "raw meat" to help sow division and accelerate their anger, he said.

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"He's using these Black voters as fodder for the rage that's being intensified among his base," Lewis said Monday. "The Republican Party should be ashamed for enabling this behavior knowing it's no good for the country."

Lewis is an assistant pastor at St. Gabriel's Church of God In Christ in Milwaukee. Through his role in Souls to the Polls, Lewis said he was in contact with more than 516 local religious leaders across faiths.

"If it had not been for the church," he said, referring not just to Black places of worship, "Milwaukee would not have come out and Wisconsin would still be red."

"In Wisconsin, it's really hard to cheat because of all the suppression tactics," Lewis said, such as the voter ID requirement. Wisconsin requires citizens show a government-issued identification or other documents before casting a ballot.

"That is something people really need to consider what's going on here. It's a time waster. It's disrespectful to our community."

In Wisconsin, simply registering to vote has "become so complex," Lewis said. "All the requirements to vote are complex."

And that, Cusick said, is one of the real reasons for the ongoing fight. If those uncomfortable with full Black participation in democracy seed once again the idea that something fishy happened, if they can tap into the latent beliefs some Americans already hold that Black political influence equals corruption or an end-times scenario, public support for additional constraints on the right to vote will likely grow.

"That’s the long-range goal," he said.

In Michigan, after several hours of outdoor prayer, Bland heralded the state election certification board’s vote.

"Evil is not capable of a perfect plan," he texted, referring to words made famous by the Rev. Mordecai Johnson, the first Black president of Howard University and a man born to once-enslaved parents. "Detroit Votes Matter! Grateful to the State Board of Canvassers in the main for doing their job. As goes Detroit, goes MI! We’ve Gone from Picking Cotton to Picking Presidents!"

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