“Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes. Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists, and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on the application. And if he manages to fill out an application, he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of State law. And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write. For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin.” — President Lyndon Baines Johnson, 1965
Deterrence: the action of discouraging an action or event through instilling doubt or fear of the consequences.
In 2016, the Trump campaign sorted millions of voters in 16 key battleground states into categories, also described as “audiences,” so they could then be targeted with tailored ads on Facebook and other platforms.
Black voters were sorted into a category titled “Deterrence.” These were the people the campaign wanted to keep from voting, according to Britain’s Channel 4 News. Facebook was flooded with negative ads, targeted specifically at Black audiences, designed to keep them at home on Election Day.
Efforts to keep Black Americans from voting are nothing new, of course. For most of the century and a half since the 15th Amendment declared the right to vote “shall not be denied on account of race,” the right to vote consistently has been denied on account of race.
Nor is it breaking news that social media was a key tool used to suppress the Black vote in 2016. The largest part of Russia’s disinformation campaign was aimed at demoralizing and discouraging African Americans from voting, as the National Urban League’s State of Black America detailed last year.
But the Channel 4 investigation revealed that overt contempt for Black voters was not just an undercurrent in the 2016 presidential race, but a key component of a one campaign’s official strategy.
The revelation should impel every Black American to vote with might and main.
“Deterrence” belongs on the same ash heap of history as the poll tax, literacy tests and the “Southern Strategy,” along with other shameful voter suppression tactics still in use such as restrictive voter ID laws, excessive purges of voter rolls, and the rampant shutdown of polling places in Black neighborhoods.
When President Trump urged his supporters during last week’s debate “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” he was alluding to the expiration of a consent decree that has protected voters from intimidation at the polls since 1982. The decree was enacted after Democrats sued the Republican National Committee for sending off-duty law enforcement officers as “ballot security” to New Jersey polling places in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. A Trump campaign official was recorded last year saying the expiration of the consent decree was a “huge, huge, huge, huge deal” for the campaign’s election day operations in Wisconsin.
If you see intimidating behavior at the polls, report it (866-OUR-VOTE). Then vote. If you see a negative Facebook ad, research the truth. Then vote. Don’t allow any campaign to put you in a box marked “Deterrence.”
Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.