Questioning who has the right to vote, poll watching, and so-called election integrity groups, all have a long history in America. From Reconstruction to the civil rights movement and beyond, efforts to expand the franchise — the right to vote — have been followed by electoral strategies designed to limit it. Wake Forest University Professor of the Humanities Corey Walker spoke with WFDD’s David Ford about the various forms that voter suppression efforts have taken over generations.

Interview Highlights

On parallels with Reconstruction:

"Well, when we look at Reconstruction, of course, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments fundamentally rewrite American democracy, fundamentally rewrite citizenship, who can participate in democracy, and also the rights, duties, and obligations of those citizens as well as of the state to those new citizens. So you have a new nation. And of course, for roughly a decade, we have folks and Reconstruction governments that are trying to rebuild and reconstruct that new nation and tried to make real the idea of 'We the People.' But of course, when we get to 1876, in the Hayes, Tilden compromise, we get a return back to those ideas of what America should be, who should be in power, who should be governing. And of course, you have contestations around that. In North Carolina, you have fusion governments. In Virginia same thing, you have the Readjusters movement. So you have a contestation around that, but around the late 19th, the turn of the 20th century, you get a solidification of not only white supremacy, but you also get rampant and rabid voter disenfranchisement."

On political turmoil following the freedom struggles of the 50s and 60s:

"And that enables us to begin to renew this idea of American democracy. And of course, that idea of American democracy comes head-to-head with a very contentious politics and that contentious politics of the 1970s and 1980s — we see the rise of a conservative right, we see the rise of a shift in voter realignment, we see a rise in conservative politics and that conservative politics, of course, captures the White House. But it's not as conservative as what we're seeing right now. I mean, in many ways, you're going to see a wave of conservative politicians and conservative politics in America from the 1980s on. You get Ronald Reagan's America in the 80s where Reagan argues that government is the problem. And it's a systematic taking back the gains of the 1960s. That's really animated and deepened by the Gingrich revolution at the moment of Bill Clinton's victory in ‘92, 1994 we get this backlash with Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America. So it's not only the Reagan revolution. But it's a deeper revolution, a deeper conservative revolution. It has the political overtones also saturated with these theological tones. This is when you have the Christian Right coming into its real power, robust power. I mean, of course, Pat Robertson runs for office in ‘88. But it is in that ‘90 to ‘94 period that you have them in office. And of course, they impeach Bill Clinton in ‘96. And what they set is a deeper stage for a deeper conservative turn. We see that turn when George W. comes in office, and it's an explicit turn to religious politics. And George W. famously states that his favorite philosopher is Jesus Christ in the debate, and of course, we get 9-11. And we get a war on terror. But we get an interregnum. And that is the Obama years. But in that interregnum, those conservative forces aren't dissipating. They are continuing to animate. I mean, we get the Tea Party. In 2014, we get Mitch McConnell taking over the Senate for the Republicans, and we no longer get Barack Obama able to select the next justice for the Supreme Court in 2016." 

On how former President Donald Trump changed the game:

"We get Trump, and Trump unleashes everything that's pent up since the 1980s. And there's also a strategic shift in the electorate. I mean, you see this expansion of the vote, but at the same time, you see its contraction of not only who's voting, but how do their votes count. Trump ran on a campaign of marginal victories. He lost by over 3 million votes to Hillary Clinton. But it was now those margins in those swing states that counted more. And that demonstrated that you can actually continue to maintain political power with a minority of votes. This solidified it. And what we see in 2020, and 2022, is a deepening of that. The Republicans understand that they're not going to get the mass number of votes in American democracy anymore. Democracy is too pluralist, it is deeply diverse. It is a broad demographic. But the question becomes, how do we carve up democracy to ensure our maintenance of political power? So now we see projects animated around religion like Project Blitz, we also see these voter ID efforts. We also see these electoral watcher campaigns, these poll watcher campaigns, they've moved to the grassroots. They understand that the grassroots, the local level, is where you can now effectively govern and dictate not only local politics, but also national politics." 


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