Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

How Election Fraud Claims May Disenfranchise Black Voters


The leaked call between President Trump and Georgia election officials is something of a greatest hits of the president's frequent election-related grievances - allegations of voter misconduct and fraud without evidence; many levied at counties where Black voters showed up in force. In Georgia, Fulton County has drawn his ire. Much of Atlanta is in Fulton County. In Pennsylvania, it was Philadelphia. In Michigan, Wayne County, home of Detroit. Just a few examples there. Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and professor of journalism at Columbia University. He's here to talk more about it.

Welcome to the program.

JELANI COBB: Thank you.

CORNISH: So you drew our attention because of a tweet last night where you said this is an attempt to take us back to the post-Reconstruction era. And of course, this is the time after the Civil War, when the federal government had pulled out of the South. What specifically - what is the parallel that you see in this moment?

COBB: Well, I mean, it's exactly the things that you were talking about. You know, the grievances around who won the election call back to 1876, which was the disputed election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden. And the result of that was the deal that was cut that allowed Rutherford B. Hayes to assume the presidency, but also ended Reconstruction and ended the period of democracy that the newly emancipated Black people had experienced. And that was when we saw the onset of things like violent voter suppression.

And, you know, what I was saying about what we're seeing now is the specificity of those concerns in the counties and cities where overwhelmingly Black voters came out in this past presidential election. And those are the places that are being targeted. Those are the votes that are being disputed.

CORNISH: But they're also overwhelmingly Democrat, right? So what's your response to a Republican who is going to say, look, these are places where we have concern about Democratic votes, not Black votes?

COBB: Yeah. I think that that's a kind of distinction without a difference. We could have said the same thing about Black people voting Republican in the South in 1880. And so it was more a matter of removing people from contention politically.

CORNISH: Almost no one believes that Trump can change the outcome of the general election right now. But do you see people being rattled? And I won't have you speak for, you know, all Black voters, but do you see something in particular for Black voters to be truly concerned about?

COBB: Sure. I've seen, you know, people I've talked to who are very keenly aware of the difficulties that their family members or even some older people had in their own lives casting ballots. You know, my father grew up in Georgia at a time where attempting to vote would have got him killed.

And so, yeah, I think that this has raised echoes, you know, of history for people in some ways. And not simply for African Americans. I think there are lots of people who are looking at the anti-democratic impulses we're seeing indulged right now and saying that whatever the policies you favor, this behavior is not beneficial to upholding a democracy or a democratic society.

CORNISH: People have been voting for weeks now in that runoff election in Georgia. Do you think that these attacks on the vote are going to have a galvanizing effect, especially on Black voters there, or a cooling effect?

COBB: I think that we've seen - this is anecdotal. I don't know that there are hard numbers around it. But this seems to be a boomerang dynamic where once people become aware that there are attempts to ward them away from the polling places, it really does incense them. And it makes people more likely to come out and vote.

CORNISH: If there is a parallel to the political moment that you're talking about, what do you see as a positive, you know, or what are you going to be looking at going forward?

COBB: Well, I think that the level of engagement that we saw was really astounding. And there's now a roadmap in many places in terms of voter engagement, voter registration, how you move people from being inactive to being active participants in democracy.

The other part of it is that there's - every four years - the discussion of does my vote really matter? I think that it's much more difficult for people to raise that question right now as we are literally counting every single vote in these places. It's hard to make an argument that you don't think your vote matters right now.

CORNISH: Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and professor of journalism at Columbia University.

Thank you for your time.

COBB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.