In 2021, conservative lawmakers are spinning racially coded language to push legislation that will make it harder for people of color to vote. (Photo by iStock.)

When the Georgia state legislature passed its voter-suppression legislation two months ago, a bell tolled.

On March 25, the Republican-controlled Georgia state general assembly passed an election-reform bill that tightened restrictions on voter access to the polls. It narrows the time window to obtain a mail-in ballot, reduces the options for ballot drop boxes, and — this takes the cake — makes it illegal to give someone standing in line to vote a refreshment, such as bottle of water.[1]

Previously, election officials used signature verification to authenticate mail-in ballots; now, voters are required to provide a driver’s license or state ID number when voting by mail. According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution election data analysis, the majority of Georgia citizens without a driver’s license or state ID are African American, and most live in urban areas. If a resident has neither a driver’s license nor a state-issued ID, the alternatives for proof of eligibility, such as a utility bill or bank statement, prove problematic for populations who lack such documentation, such as the homeless.[2]

In Georgia, mail-in ballots accounted for 1.3 million votes in the 2020 presidential election,[3] representing a quarter of the 5 million who voted in the state.[4] Record-breaking voter turnout among people of color tipped the election in Joe Biden’s favor. The bill, called the 2021 Election Integrity Act, bore clear marks of retaliation for the 2020 presidential election. It creates more obstacles to vote, and those obstacles disproportionately affect people of color and the already marginalized. Yet, within two hours after the general assembly passed the bill, Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law.[5]

In the days preceding the Georgia bill’s passage, Democratic strategist Stacey Abrams appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union,” calling the GOP legislative push “a redux of Jim Crow in a suit and tie.” Abrams, emphasizing the “great pains” that Georgia officials took to ensure the state’s election integrity, concluded, “the only connection that we can find is that more people of color voted and it changed the outcome of elections in the direction Republicans do not like.”[6]

The Georgia legislation, as it turned out, merely shined a light on similar voter-restrictive measures already underway in a majority of states across the nation. According to the New York University Brennan Center for Justice, “[a]s of May 14, 2021, legislators have introduced 389 bills with restrictive provisions in 48 states.” When the Brennan Center first reported state-level voter suppression legislation on Feb. 19, the number stood at 253. That’s an increase of more than 50 percent. Now, 22 voter-suppression measures are codified into law nationwide, and “61 bills with restrictive provisions in 18 states are moving through legislatures: 31 have passed at least one chamber, while another 30 have had some sort of committee action.”[7]

Acts of defiance are punctuating this legislative wave. On May 30, Democratic representatives for the Texas state legislature walked off the House floor to break the quorum on a pending bill that, if passed into law, “would make it easier to overturn an election” without proof of fraud.[8]

Meanwhile, federal legislation that can counteract this sweeping state-level legislation has stalled in the Senate. On March 3, the U.S. House of Representatives passed House Resolution (H.R.) 1, the For the People Act. H.R. 1 extends greater election regulatory authority to the federal government.[9] Among the Act’s many provisions, eligible citizens would automatically be registered to vote in federal elections, with the choice to opt out. The Brennan Center estimates this would register 50 million more eligible voters. The Act would require states to allow voters to register on the date of an election. And, it limits states’ ability to purge registered voters from the rolls.[10]

Democrats see H.R. 1 as a check on “state-level Republican efforts to restrict voting access.” Whereas members of the GOP who oppose the bill say they view it as an overreach and an infringement on state authority.[11]

RACIALLY CODED LANGUAGE IN GOP DISCOURSE

Among the racialized — and sometimes outright racist — discourse the GOP is today using to push voter-suppression legislation at the state level, terms such as “states’ rights” and “criminal” or “felon” can appear comparatively neutral. But these terms, which appear frequently in GOP arguments — such as the following example by Republican Mike Pence, the former U.S. vice president — carry racially coded baggage that lurks just beneath the surface.

In March, Pence published an op-ed in the Daily Signal, a conservative American political media news website, voicing his support of states’ efforts to restrict voter access and his opposition to H.R. 1, though he frames it as an attempt to “restore public confidence in state elections.”[12] Spurred by former President Donald Trump’s allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election,[13] the discursive practices that leaders in the GOP, like Pence, are using to justify and defend this legislation are sounding the alarm among critics who recognize the signs and signals of voter suppression in the U.S., specifically the suppression of votes among marginalized and nonwhite communities.[14]

Pence’s editorial exemplifies the racially coded rhetoric that, to the lay listener, may sound neutral or colorblind, but which persists today in party-line rhetoric used to justify voter-suppression legislation.

‘States’ rights’

Take the term, “states’ rights.” That’s a safe term, right? It’s evoked frequently enough. Case in point, Pence writes in his op-ed, “Under the Constitution, elections are governed at the state level. And each state is required to appoint presidential electors ‘in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.’”[15] Sounds neutral, until we dig just a little deeper.

Dylan Bennett and Hannah Walker trace the American conservative commitment to states’ rights to its deep roots in white supremacy, calling states’ rights “one of the most racially loaded terms in the American political lexicon.”[16] Let’s break it down.

When the American founders established our system of government, it was rooted in regional power; the U.S. then lacked a strong central government. This regionalism, and its corresponding concept of states’ rights, served conservative priorities as the federal government expanded its power reach. “In the pre-Civil War era, it plainly meant defending the right to continue slavery,” Bennett and Walker write. “By the early 1960s, it was repurposed by Alabama Governor George Wallace to defend the prerogative of racial segregation in the South against looming desegregation.”[17] In the intervening half-century, the term, “states’ rights,” has evolved into an implicit signal that it’s time to dig in and resist federal efforts to insinuate civil rights legislation.

Several passages in Pence’s op-ed warrant analysis, so I encourage you to take a closer look. Meantime, I’ll jump to the part where he turns up the temperature by evoking a dog whistle: “criminal,” or more specifically, “felons.” In this context, I use the term “dog whistle” as a particular kind of racially coded word and phrase intended to trigger strong emotional reactions.

“Criminal” and “Felons”

In his objection to the clause in H.R. 1 titled “Subtitle E — Democracy Restoration,” which restores the voting rights to Americans with prior criminal convictions,[18] Pence warns his constituents that “Felons would be able to vote the moment they set foot out of prison.”[19] For starters, Pence’s use of the label “felon” reduces an individual to the sum of his or her mistakes.

How is “felon” a racially coded word? Here is an explanation drawn from 20th-century American political history: John Ehrlichman, a top adviser to President Richard Nixon, fessed up to the Nixon administration’s deliberate appropriation of the euphemism “criminal” as a code word for “Black.” He told Harper’s in 2016:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.[20]

There, from the horse’s mouth. Yet why, as a society, aren’t we getting it?

I urge you to check out “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. She retraces the present-day mass incarceration of African Americans to slavery, drawing connections between racially coded euphemisms like “criminal” and inflated public perceptions about drug use in the Black community. She then connects these phenomena to imprisonment of African Americans in vastly disproportionate numbers, while arguing that today’s penal system has taken the place of the institution of slavery in that it strips the human rights of its prisoners, who are overwhelmingly Black.

So, when Pence evokes states’ rights, and when he issues such warnings that “Felons would be able to vote the moment they set foot out of prison,” I have to wonder, is he aware of the racial charges that those terms carry?

“STATES” OF CRISIS

In March, Kemp signed the 2021 Election Integrity Act into law behind closed doors, flanked by white men, a painting of a plantation hanging in the background. Outside the office, Park Cannon, one of many Democratic members of the Georgia legislature who stood in protest of the bill, knocked on the door. Georgia capitol police officers arrested her and led her from the building in handcuffs. She faced two felony charges: obstruction of law enforcement, and disrupting a session of the general assembly.[21] The charges were dropped two weeks later,[22] but not before the photos and videos showing her forcibly removed from the Georgia Capitol gained wide circulation. It’s a striking juxtaposed image — a white governor, surrounded by white men in the shadow of a symbol of oppression, codifying a law that restricts voting access to the state’s disfranchised and communities of color, against that of a Black woman closed out of the room where the final decision is being writ into the record.

A bell tolled, indeed.

The question now is, what does the toll signal: a galvanizing call, or democracy’s death knell?

Furthermore, what does an overwhelming majority of U.S. states passing voter-suppression laws have to do with peace and war, the subject of this blog? Everything. When the vote founders, freedom founders. And in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state, the wolf is at the door once again.

A born-and-raised Pennsylvanian and current resident of the great Commonwealth of PA, I saw my vote—cast by mail in 2020 — come under attack again and again, first by Trump, then by the legion of lawyers who sought to invalidate Pennsylvania votes. My own U.S. congressman, Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa., returned to the House chambers shortly after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and cast his lot to overturn the vote of the Pennsylvania electoral college.[23] Now, a group of Pennsylvania lawmakers, led by state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin (who represents, ironically, the district that includes Gettysburg), have returned from a recent tour of the Arizona election audit. Mastriano, who supports Trump’s election fraud claims, is pushing for a similar audit to occur here.[24]

The very idea that elected officials, from the state level to the person who once occupied the land’s highest office, view my vote as such a threat that they’d seek to erase it, demonstrates the power of that vote.

But this is far bigger than me and my one vote. As a white woman, I understand that I come from a place of privilege. This is the first time, in my lifetime, that people in power have attempted to use the system to scrub my voice. Yet, for our brothers and sisters in marginalized communities, voter suppression is an all-too-common phenomenon.

Join me in standing for the voting rights of every American. Because the day we allow people in positions of power to cancel votes they dont like or agree with is the day democracy dies.

In democracy’s most tested moments, Pennsylvania has stood firm at liberty’s gates, from the American Revolution, to the Battle of Gettysburg, and now, in the present-day war on truth, which Trump continues to spin and which Mastriano is aggressively pushing in Pennsylvania. Fortunately, PA has a gatekeeper with the truth on his side, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who on June 7 called Pennsylvania the “epicenter in our fight for democracy,”[25] and who on June 6 tweeted, “The fight to protect our democracy is taking place in the states, not in Washington — and amidst unprecedented GOP-led threats to our right to vote, I’m standing firm at the forefront of that battle.”[26]

In my way, so am I. — JDP

Notes:

[1] Ben Nadler, “Georgia Gov. Kemp Signs GOP Election Bill amid an Outcry,” AP News (Associated Press, March 26, 2021).

[2] Mark Niesse, “Georgia Absentee ID Law Has Outsized Impact on Black and Metro Voters,” AJC (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 1, 2021).

[3] Nadler, “Georgia Gov. Kemp Signs GOP Election Bill amid an Outcry,” March 26, 2021.

[4] Niesse, “Georgia Absentee ID Law Has Outsized Impact on Black and Metro Voters,” June 1, 2021.

[5] Nadler, “Georgia Gov. Kemp Signs GOP Election Bill amid an Outcry,” March 26, 2021.

[6] Chandelis Duster, “Abrams on GOP Efforts to Target Voting: 'It Is a Redux of Jim Crow in a Suit and Tie',” CNN (Cable News Network, March 14, 2021).

[7] Gareth Fowler et al., “State Voting Bills Tracker 2021,” Brennan Center for Justice, May 28, 2021.

[8] Lauren McGaughy, “Texas Democrats Walk out of House Chamber to Stop Debate on Sweeping GOP-Backed Elections Bill,” Dallas Morning News, May 31, 2021.

[9] John P. Sarbanes, “H.R.1 - 117th Congress (2021-2022): For the People Act of 2021,” Congress.gov, March 11, 2021.

[10] If you’d like more information on H.R. 1, see Michael Waldman et al., “Annotated Guide to the For the People Act of 2021,” Brennan Center for Justice, June 2, 2021.

[11] Clare Foran and Annie Grayer, “House Passes Sweeping Election Bill That Would Counter GOP Efforts to Restrict Voter Access,” CNN (Cable News Network, March 4, 2021).

[12] Mike Pence, “Pence: Election Integrity Should Be a National Imperative,” The Daily Signal, March 4, 2021.

[13] Duster, “Abrams on GOP Efforts to Target Voting: 'It Is a Redux of Jim Crow in a Suit and Tie',” March 14, 2021.

[14] Timothy Bella, “A GOP Lawmaker Says the 'Quality' of a Vote Matters. Critics Say That's 'Straight out of Jim Crow.',” The Washington Post (WP Company, March 13, 2021).

[15] Pence, “Election Integrity Should Be a National Imperative,” March 4, 2021.

[16] Dylan Bennett and Hannah Walker, “Cracking the Racial Code: Black Threat, White Rights and the Lexicon of American Politics,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 77, no. 3-4 (2018): pp. 689-727, 714, https://doi.org/10.1111/ajes.12240.

[17] Bennett and Walker, “Cracking the Racial Code,” 715.

[18] Waldman et al., “Annotated Guide to the For the People Act of 2021,” June 2, 2021

[19] Pence, “Election Integrity Should Be a National Imperative,” March 4, 2021. (Note: I have bold-italicized the coded language for emphasis.)

[20] Dan Baum et al., “[Report]: Legalize It All,” Harper's Magazine, March 31, 2016.

[21] Nadler, Georgia Gov. Kemp Signs GOP Election Bill amid an Outcry,” March 26, 2021.

[22] WSBTV.com News Staff, “Rep. Park Cannon Won't Be Prosecuted after Election Law Arrest, Prosecutor Says,” WSB (WSB-TV Channel 2 - Atlanta, April 7, 2021).

[23] Gillian McGoldrick, “Fact-Check: Smucker's Speech to Object to Pa.'s Election Furthers Unfounded Claims of Malfeasance,” LNP | LancasterOnline (January 8, 2021).

[24] Tom Lehman, “After Visiting Arizona Election Audit, State Lawmaker Calls for Similar Audit in Pennsylvania,” WGAL (WGAL, June 4, 2021).

[25] Josh Shapiro, @JoshShapiroPA, Attorney General of Pennsylvania (tweet) (Twitter, June 7, 2021).

[26] Josh Shapiro, @JoshShapiroPA, Attorney General of Pennsylvania (tweet) (Twitter, June 6, 2021).


This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is a doctoral candidate in the American Studies program at Penn State Harrisburg and an associate editor for this blog, “Voices on Peace and War.”

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