Jamil Smith: Barack Obama Needs to Talk About Voter Suppression

The former president can’t avoid the topic if he wants to be an effective surrogate before the 2018 midterms

If Barack Obama is the professor behind the podium, Donald Trump is the class clown sitting in the back, loudly yawning for effect. Obama emerged last Friday from a self-imposed political exile to levy his most direct and cogent criticism of Trumpism to date. The current president’s only response was that the speech made him drowsy. “I’m sorry, I watched it, but I fell asleep,” Trump told supporters at a Fargo, North Dakota, fundraiser Friday evening. “I found he’s very good, very good for sleeping.”

It is easy to see why Trump would take the “You’re boring me, nerd” tack. He lacks the intellectual ability to respond to Obama’s incisive charges of demagoguery, divisiveness and utter incompetence. Trump’s political viability is predicated upon animating the voters he needs and exhausting those he does not. In that respect, he shares much with his Republican colleagues who seek to suppress the votes of those Americans they assume will vote Democratic.

Obama’s driving message in his Friday address at the University of Illinois-Champaign was less about the danger Trump poses than how to mitigate it. “You’ve got to vote,” he repeated often near the end of his speech, at one time saying, “Thirty minutes. Thirty minutes of your time. Is democracy worth that?”

Sure, but what if you actually can’t vote? Given the rise of voter suppression efforts during — and perhaps in response to — his presidency, it’s curious that Obama’s pre-midterms message would omit such a major factor in November’s elections.

In June 2013, a little more than midway through Obama’s White House tenure, the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision all but spayed Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Federal pre-clearance for new voting rights laws in certain states and localities would still technically be the law of the land, but the mechanism for determining which jurisdictions would be subject to it was stripped away. To the conservatives on the bench, it was suddenly unconstitutional to recognize and base policy upon the reality of past discrimination against voters of color.

Despite what the ruling suggested, racism in the United States hadn’t magically ended. And in the years after Shelby, a flood of new voting restrictions passed. Last week, Pew reported that nearly a thousand polling places have closed since the decision, many in southern black communities. Though Georgia’s Randolph County recently rejected a Republican consultant’s proposal to close seven of its nine voting locations, 10 other counties in the state with similarly large black populations were not as lucky.

Voter roll purges, the increasingly and often deliberately flawed method for states to determine which voters are permitted to cast a ballot, predate the Obama presidency, but they have become more common in recent years. A July report by the Brennan Center for Justice detailed how purges surged in the wake of the Shelby ruling. From 2014 to 2016, 16 million voters were purged from the rolls. That’s a 33 percent increase from the 12 million in the period immediately preceding Obama’s election, 2006 to 2008. He can celebrate the somewhat romantic notion of one person, one vote — but there will be plenty of people who go to the polls this November and find out that they have no vote, and thus, no voice.

In her dissent for Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, yet another Supreme Court ruling diminishing ballot access, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that purges like the one Ohio’s Republican government is currently carrying out disproportionately affect voters of color. It is the very thing that the Voting Rights Act was meant to guard against. “Communities that are disproportionately affected by unnecessarily harsh registration laws should not tolerate efforts to marginalize their influence in the political process,” Sotomayor wrote, “nor should allies who recognize blatant unfairness stand idly by.”

Unfortunately, that is exactly what Obama is doing by leaving voter suppression out of his rhetoric. Even as he castigated Trump for the threat he poses to democracy and to American political norms, he chose to ignore race-based voter suppression, perhaps the most essential tool for maintaining Republican political viability this fall.

In 2014, nearly a year after the Shelby decision, Obama delivered a pointed message about voter suppression to the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Noting his past leading voter registration drives in Illinois after law school, Obama said, “We’re not going to let voter suppression go unchallenged.” Indeed, his administration confronted the problem directly, acting as a safety net for those states let down by the Voting Rights Act’s neutralization. The Department of Justice under Obama consistently fought superfluous voter-ID laws and efforts to gerrymander districts to preserve white voter supremacy, so to speak. Now, those injuries to our democracy go unchallenged by Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice.

However, Obama’s Friday speech evoked memories of an MSNBC interview that he did with Sharpton four days before Trump was elected. He all but dismissed the threat of voter suppression, insisting that “we disempower ourselves all the time. You can’t tell me that all those folks who don’t vote are doing so because somebody’s turned them away or somebody’s intimidated them, no. It’s because they decided they had something better to do.”

Even more to the point, Obama told Sharpton, “The notion that somehow voter suppression is keeping you from voting — as systematic as Republicans have tried to make voting more difficult for minorities, for Democrats, for young people — the truth of the matter is, if you actually want to vote, then you can vote.” Days later, voter suppression played an unquestioned role in Trump’s victory. For example, as Ari Berman reported for Rolling Stone in January, Wisconsin’s voter-ID law blocked or deterred 45,000 voters from casting a ballot in an election that Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes. African Americans were three times more likely to be victimized.

Obama’s don’t-boo-vote refrain is an incomplete message, and perhaps always has been. It relies upon a certain idyllic notion of America, one that the 44th president did his best to realize, but failed.

Either way, he should talk some more about the America that is, not the one he hopes it can be. This is a moment for realism, and for speaking truth to power. It’s all well and good that Obama sees what we have seen — how Trump’s ethno-nationalist government has separated immigrant children and jailed them, passed a malicious tax cut for the rich, gave cover to neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and left Puerto Rico to rot and die. With that record, Republicans don’t have much to run on this November. Voter suppression has become essential to their argument. Obama can’t simply tell people, “You’ve got to vote” without addressing how one party benefits, explicitly and openly, from fewer people voting.