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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Those dirty, rotten voters

by John Brummett | February 28, 2021 at 1:59 a.m.

Recent news events remind me of the conspicuous mid-American swath revealed by a map in The New York Times in November 2008.

The strip extended from Oklahoma through Arkansas and Tennessee and up to West Virginia. It was the only area of the country in which Democrat Barack Obama had received a lower percentage of the vote that year against John McCain for president than Democrat John Kerry had received four years earlier against the incumbent president, George W. Bush.

Kerry ran against Bush in 2004 and lost narrowly. Obama ran against McCain in 2008 and won commandingly. Yet the national political dynamic was flipped in these four states.

Nowhere else in the country did Kerry of '04 get better percentages--win or lose--than Obama in '08.

Those four states happen to be distinguished demographically by white rural conservatives.

Obama had captured a nation's imagination with his message of hope and change. But he had done more poorly in these states than an aloof wind-surfer from Massachusetts who had come through Arkansas and explained that his "F" from the NRA was bogus in part because he had hunted woodchucks.

I remember a post- election panel discussion in November '08 of the Little Rock Political Animals Club. The aforementioned map came up. A woman with the state Republican Party said it reflected well on the thoughtfulness of voters in Arkansas and those three other states.

I felt obliged to suggest that racism might be considered an element, considering that these were four rural white states and Obama was Black and Kerry white.

(One point for full context: Arkansas stood out most of all on this conspicuous swath. Kerry did five points better in Arkansas in '04 than Obama in '08. Kerry did less than a full percentage point better in the other three states. Kerry perhaps benefited uniquely in Arkansas in '04 when a gaggle of middle-aged local Democrats not yet accepting the Republican tide in the state acted on their own to run radio spots for him, though his campaign gave up on Arkansas. In '08, Obama was received coolly by many Democrats in Arkansas who had preferred Hillary Clinton for the nomination.)

Now to news events: The overwhelmingly Republican Arkansas General Assembly has just sent to the governor a bill to make it harder for poor and disadvantaged people to vote in the state. And a state-by-state compilation of voter turnout in the recent presidential election shows that the lowest percentages of eligible voters turned out in--get this--that same quartet of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia (and, quite off point, Hawaii).

The highest-percentage turnouts, 20 to 25 points higher, were in Minnesota, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, New Hampshire, Maine and New Jersey. Three of those states provide for universal mail voting. All went for Joe Biden. The recurringly conspicuous swath from Oklahoma to West Virginia went for Donald Trump.

Democrats do better when more people vote. More people vote when voting is made more convenient.

Republicans do better when the populations tend to be white and rural and lower percentages of the people vote.

From the demographics for those four states and the Obama-Kerry performance comparison in them, race indeed warrants consideration as a common contributing factor.

You could say that the overwhelmingly white rural Republican state Legislature of Arkansas decided that the state faces a pressing need that even fewer people vote than the relative few already voting.

Oklahoma had the lowest percentage turnout in November. Arkansas was a close second. Our legislators seem to want to blow into first place.

This bill says that provisional ballots--meaning those put aside for checking later because of problems--can only be verified with photo IDs and no longer by signatures on sworn affidavits of truthful presentation.

Have there been instances in Arkansas of people curing their provisional-ballot problems by signing bogus affidavits, claiming to be someone else, perhaps deceased? No. There have been none.

Sen. Jason Rapert rose to argue for the bill by saying that a photo ID was no big deal because everyone in the Legislature had one or more in their pockets.

They also have special license plates revealing that they got elected to the Legislature. They are privileged. They are Arkansas-elite.

They may lack understanding of--or sympathy for--people either elderly or disabled or so disadvantaged economically and educationally and culturally, including by race, that they don't carry photo IDs or need them day to day or know how to get them.

So let's make sure by law they can no longer vote on their signatures. Let us assume they are forgers, liars, though we lack evidence. That's what the bill means.

Actually, the bill says one other thing more basically. It's that Arkansas Republicans want even fewer people voting.

Imagine what might happen if the percentage of eligible voters actually voting went from its 56.1 here to the 79.96 of Minnesota.

Arkansas Republican legislators don't trust people in that nearly 23.9-point gap.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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