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Obama's victory and the old US

By Theodore Lewis

The television networks had called the election, challenger Romney had made his concession speech, and Obama was addressing the gathered crowd of supporters in Chicago and people around the world as the victor.

Meanwhile in Florida television footage showed people standing in line, still not having voted. It would take days before the Florida results could be called. The state had been caught. Months before the election observers including television and newspaper reporters had been pressing the governor on his proposed changes, pointing out their inequity. I saw him on one of our local TV channels saying this was to stem voter fraud. How could it be that in a country we associate with administrative and technological efficiency, and with transparency on electoral matters, there could be such an embarrassing spectre? The answer lies in the dark side of the recent US elections, one in which official traps were set in some battleground states, typically with Republican governors, to try to suppress the minority vote. The Republicans had lawyers lined up for court challenges to the results, but they can go home now. The traps did not fly.

Long before the elections got into gear, several states introduced new procedures for voting. Included among the devices were (a) cleansing of voter lists (b) issuing of new state-issued identification cards for voting purposes, in place of existing ones such as driver's licences, and (c) shortening the period of early voting. These devices affected minorities disproportionately. They led to court and other challenges in the several states where this occurred.

In Ohio, for example, the acknowledged critical state in the elections, the courts overturned an attempt to shorten the period of early voting by preventing voting during the last weekend of the election campaign. In the previous election, some 100,000 votes had been cast in Ohio during that last weekend, most of it by black churchgoers, who had organised buses to take them straight from Sunday church to the polls. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld a challenge to this in the week before the election. In Pennsylvania the courts prevented the state from imposing new voter identification cards.

Florida is one of the states where restrictions on early voting remained intact for the elections. The state had a notoriously long election ballot that posed a literacy challenge for many. Ballots in the US include not just a simple choice between presidential candidates, but a list of propositions as well. The Florida ballot ran for several pages, and included 12 amendments to which voters had to respond, one of them being whether to "Replace existing revenue limits with a new limitation based on inflation and population changes"! Florida also succeeded in cutting its early period of voting by several days, this in a state where more than eight million people voted. This led to a decrease in early voting, and an increase in absentee voting.

Early voting was one of Obama's strategies. Democrats (particularly minorities) tend to favour early voting. Republicans favour absentee voting. In 2008 the early voting margin for Democrats in Florida was 168,000 votes. This time around it was 250,000. The trap had backfired. The Obama margin of victory in Florida this time around was approximately 74,000 votes, a difference buried completely in early voting. Fortunately for him, blacks in particular had become attuned early to the actions taken by states, and had raised awareness of the issue through community education. They came out early with a vengeance.

As historian Stephen Hann wrote in The New York Times of November 10, "political racism" is alive in the United States, to be seen in the attempts at official state interference in the electoral process across the country. He writes that compared to times past "the coordinated efforts across the country to intimidate and suppress the votes of racial and ethnic minorities are far more consequential (now). Hostile officials regularly deploy the language of "fraud" and "corruption" to justify their efforts much as their counterparts at the end of the 19th century did to fully disenfranchise black voters." He continues that "Although our present-day tactics are state-issued IDs, state-mandated harassment of immigrants and voter-roll purges, these are not a far cry from the poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements and discretionary power of local registrars that composed the political racism of a century ago. That's not even counting the hours-long lines many minority voters confronted."

Barack Obama has been subject to open disrespect during his presidency. His citizenship has been questioned. During a televised address to the nation in his last term one legislator blurted out "you lie!"

In the first debate with Romney he was taken aback by the absence of common courtesy or deference. Romney consistently interrupted him while he spoke, cutting in on him at will while the moderator looked on. Candidate Obama was still President Obama, and rightly expected a debate informed by due civic protocol. He lost that first debate purely because his reaction to being disrespected before the nation was to retreat. In the second debate he understood that this was a street fight. No rules. He was up from his chair stalking, visibly angry, and schooling Romney. By the third debate Romney was in his shell, as Obama relentlessly aggressive, and fighting with bare knuckles, pointed out to him that with today's technology, wars are not fought with horses and bayonets.

That Obama won the election given concerted attempts by states, especially those with Republican governors, to steal it through official devices, is testament to his ability to cause many whites in US society to subscribe to the post-racial nature of the society that he embodies, and to the strong appeal on account of identity that he has among blacks and Latinos. Blacks make up less than ten per cent of the population of the country, but the margin of victory in most states is far less than that. Obama got 96 per cent of Black votes. They came out overwhelmingly for him, though they are among the biggest casualties of the economy, with highest unemployment. Latinos understand that they could not support a man who openly proposed "self-deportation" as a strategy to rid the country of them. They saw that Obama was their man. US society has moved considerably with the re-election of Obama, but there is much social debris still to jettison as the country moves forward.

• Theodore Lewis is emeritus professor, University of Minnesota

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