To Prevent Election Meddling, Invest in Black Voters, Groups Say

Russian disinformation campaign seized on long history of suppressing black votes

A voter enters the polling station at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, Ala., to vote in the 2017 special election to fill Jeff Sessions' seat in the U.S. Senate. In the foreground is a historical marker noting a 1963 civil rights march to the courthouse to register African-American women as voters. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Political leaders seeking to prevent future meddling in American elections could take a lesson from the Russians: Invest in black voters.

That’s one takeaway from reports this week that Russian operatives disproportionately targeted African-Americans during the 2016 election, according to groups that seek to increase black participation and representation in American politics. 

“The Russians are exploiting a challenge that we have in our society, an unwillingness or an inability to deal with racial justice,” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a national network that seeks to elevate the political voice and power of women of color. “If we’re not having an open conversation about that, that makes us vulnerable.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee reports, released Monday, outlined how Russian operatives used social media to foment racial divisions and seek to suppress African-American turnout in the 2016 election. Experts in African-American political history said the tactics resembled those common in the Jim Crow South and reemerging in recent allegations of voter suppression in places like Georgia and North Carolina. 

The Russian strategy seized on a “long history” of suppressing black votes in America, said Henry Fernandez, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund who focuses on state and municipal policies, elections and civil rights. “They were looking to use existing wedges among Americans and exacerbate them,” he said. 

Political leaders should take that history into account when they are considering their response, Fernandez and other civil rights experts said. 

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund called for a congressional investigation of the targeting of black voters. 

“These extraordinary revelations should be of the gravest concern to anyone who cares about the integrity of our elections and the health of our democracy,” Legal Defense Fund President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill wrote in a statement.  

And civil rights groups, including The Leadership Conference and Color of Change, have called on Facebook to address the abuse of its platform to spread racial hatred, including the posting of racially charged digital ads. 

A Color of Change spokesman said in a statement Monday that the allegations in the Senate reports “underscore the need” for the group to “continue to serving as a check on online platforms.”

But it’s not all bad news for African-American voters. The Russian effort attempted to advance the narrative that the “best way to advance the cause of the African-American community was to boycott the election,” according to the report submitted to the Senate by Oxford University

The 2018 midterm election served as a historic demonstration of the power of the black vote. 

Whereas black turnout dipped slightly in 2016, possibly contributing to the election of President Donald Trump, nearly twice as many African-Americans voted in the 2018 midterms than in the 2014 midterm cycle. Those voters were largely credited with ushering in a new generation of black political leaders, including seven new House members. 

The Russian meddling showed that party leaders ignore such voters at their peril, said Allison of She the People. 

“This is how you overcome tampering,” she said. “By deeply investing in the community.”

Watch: Ayanna Pressley Says She Won’t Be a Single-Issue Representative

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