Here’s a startling statistic for you. In Mississippi, at the height of the Reconstruction era (which lasted until 1877), African-American voter registration stood at 67 percent. A century later, after America had defeated the Nazis and was being held up as a beacon of freedom, African-American voter registration in Mississippi stood at just three percent.
How could that have happened? Many factors, but a key one was domestic racial terrorism. In “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” a powerfully timely and absorbing documentary about voter suppression and the ongoing battle against it, the author and professor Carol Anderson tells the story of Maceo Snipes, who fought the fascists during World War II and felt like he’d earned some democracy for himself. He wasn’t intimidated by threats against the lives of African-Americans in his native Georgia; he had just come back from a war. So in 1946, he voted — and was the only Black person in Taylor County, Georgia, who dared to do so. A few days later, a three-man firing squad arrived at his door and pumped his body full of bullets. “The message was clear,” says Anderson. “You vote, you die.”
There have been many good documentaries this year, but the nature of the moment we’re in is that the most important documentaries of 2020 may be those that confront the issue of voter suppression. “Slay the Dragon,” released several months ago, takes a monumental look at gerrymandering — which sounds like an old and rather dusty topic, except that this is Gerrymandering 3.0, with the Republicans using digital technology to redraw voting districts in what amounts to a hostile takeover of democracy. Now, with “All In,” co-directors Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés have crafted a documentary of supreme relevance that has the effect, at once chilling and rousing, of a political cautionary tale.
The movie has been constructed around the 2018 race for governor in Georgia, where the Democrat, Stacey Abrams, who would have been the first African-American woman elected governor in the United States, lost by a thin margin to Brian Kemp, the Republican Secretary of State. But Kemp wasn’t just running for office. He was overseeing the election, and he had orchestrated any number of tactics to suppress the voting rights of minorities, including the purging of 1.4 million people from Georgia’s voting rolls. Had that not occurred, the chances are overwhelming that Stacey Abrams would have won. The election was essentially rigged by the state’s government, so Abrams refused to concede it — she argued that it had, in effect, been stolen.
“All In” uses what went on in Georgia as a prototype for what could happen in the upcoming presidential election. One of the film’s overwhelming themes is that voter suppression works. Abrams, who is one of the film’s producers as well as its most forceful voice, talks about how people in a state like Georgia are made to “jump through hoops” to vote. “When entire communities become convinced that the process is not for them,” she says, “we lose their participation in our nation’s future. And that’s dangerous to everyone.” The movie offers a full-scale portrait of Abrams, including footage of her speaking as a college student at the 1993 March on Washington (whatever the politician’s X Factor is, she had it even then), and there’s a hardscrabble eloquence to her words, which are exhortations toward democracy.
The scandal of the Georgia’s governor’s election was covered by Robert Greenwald’s potent short documentary “Suppressed: The Fight to Vote” (2019). But Garbus and Cortés, working on a vaster scale, go back to show us how voter suppression has been a constant in American history — and has, in fact, swung back and forth like some terrible pendulum. The years of Reconstruction were hopeful; almost overnight, African-Americans were elected as senators and governors. But that all came to an end by sinister design.
After the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments guaranteed people of color the right to vote, the powers that be made a concerted effort to undercut that freedom. There were the poll taxes, which basically said: You can buy food and clothes for your children or you can vote. There were the “literacy tests,” which the Civil Rights attorney Debo Adegbile claims “are misnamed, because they weren’t really tests of one’s literacy. They were traps. They were designed to never let you answer them correctly.” (We see one example where the voter is asked to name the clerk of the superior court. Could you?) And there were the so-called “black codes,” passed in 1890, which were rules against things like “loitering,” which could get someone tossed off the voter rolls. By the early 1900s, the resurgence of the Klan had taken this already borderline lawless situation and upped the ante with its own violence.
Here’s another startling fact: In the early 1960s, William Rehnquist, the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was on the front lines of voter suppression — he was in charge of “ballot security operations” for the Republican Party in Maricopa County, the largest and most important country in Arizona. The plan was called “Operation Eagle Eye,” and it involved things like Rehnquist and others going to Democratic districts of Phoenix and asking African-American and Latinx voters if they could read the Constitution. If they couldn’t do it to his satisfaction, their eligibility to vote was challenged.
This is what the march from Selma to Montgomery was about, and “All In” records that iconic event of protest in all its existential inspiration and horror. Andrew Young, in the documentary, says, “It was ruthless, and brutal, and criminal. But it was what changed the South on voting rights.” When President Johnson spoke to Congress, declaring the necessity of passing the Voting Rights Act and condemning the bigotry that fueled voter suppression, he ended his speech with the words “And we shall overcome.” Says Young, “That’s the only time I saw Martin Luther King shed a tear.”
To this day, many progressives believe that the passage of that law was the beginning of the end of the problem. But the most sobering revelation of “All In” is its coverage of how the pendulum swung back…again. On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court, in a vote of 5-4 (led by John Roberts, who was William Rehnquist’s protégé), gutted huge sections of the Voting Rights Act. It argued that the law was an intrusion by the federal government into areas that the states had traditionally administered. To which one might say: So what? That’s true of a lot of Civil Rights law. As always, the states’-rights argument is a fig leaf — and an archaic one. (The statement by the dissenting Justices likened the decision to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”)
But as soon as that ruling was handed down, the floodgates were open. Texas took the lead with the controversial Voter ID law. This was followed, in various states, by the suppression of student voters, by voter roll purges (as in Ohio, where you can be dropped from the rolls if you don’t vote for six years, and don’t respond to a postcard that looks like a piece of junk mail; the result of this is that 2 million voters were purged out of an electorate of 11.5 million), and by poll closings (under Brian Kemp, 214 places to vote closed in Georgia — eight percent of the state’s polling places).
The most insidious aspect of voter suppression is that the reasons for it are made to look like “the law,” when it truth it’s a violation of the law. In the film, Carol Anderson says that Barack Obama brought 50 million new voters to the polls, and that the mission of the Republican Party since Obama’s election has been to stuff the genie of those voters back into the bottle. In two months, we’ll know how well they succeeded. Until then, “All In” urges every American to seek out the vote, pursue it, and safeguard it for what it is: the only free ticket to power.