It shouldn’t have been a surprise that Alabama didn’t elect a man accused of sexual assault on children, and yet here we are. People celebrated, and rightly so, but I also saw a lot of sarcastic ‘Yeah, well done for not electing a paedophile, duh’ type tweets that completely missed the even bigger picture – that this is a huge blow to the cultural hegemony of Alabama.
The last senator to win a seat in Alabama as a Democrat candidate was Howel Heflin back in 1990. Before the state turned red it had been a solidly Democratic state since the 1880s, but back in the 1990s something changed, and the state turned a deep and unchanging Republican red. In 1965 the US brought in the Voting Rights Act, only after a long campaign for civil rights, which made it illegal to have voting practices that were racially discriminatory. Before this, it had been possible to prevent black people from voting by putting up all sorts of barriers before they were allowed to vote. Then, in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down many of these provisions as being no longer necessary, and a Democratic senator hasn’t won a vote in Alabama since – until Tuesday.
The process of gerrymandering (manipulating voting boundaries and other election policies to favour one class, race or party) has been increasing steadily since 2013. Policies on any voter identification required have usually been justified under the excuse of eliminating in-person voter fraud. Except this is fake news. The actual incidence of in-person voter fraud is extraordinarily low in the US. And, incidentally also in the UK – and yet the Conservatives want to introduce IDs for voting. Can’t think why.
A study of US Federal Elections found just 0.00000013% of the votes were fraudulent, and no evidence for any of that fraud being perpetrated via in-person voting. Yet policy after policy has been introduced, putting up barriers to voting in person. Barriers that many black people find themselves bumping up against, yet which magically disappear for most white voters, because you just know which kind of voter is going to be allowed to vote using a gun licence as ID. Gerrymandering has happened in state after state, not just Alabama.
It’s not just the barriers to voting, it’s the place where you’re allowed to vote, which makes a difference. What if you could redraw all the boundaries to corral everyone you suspect would vote for your political opponent into just one district, leaving you free to control all the remaining districts? That’s how the North Carolina district map has turned out looking like the picture below, as opposed to the one underneath it. Both images are from an article in the Washington Post, detailing how a computer algorithm has already been written, capable of creating voting districts of equal population size, but without the bias of human intervention. Not that it’s being used, though, except for the purposes of illustrating how things could be.
It’s this sort of manipulation of voting conditions that has led to states becoming seen as the natural property of one party or another. It’s not that all inhabitants had the same political views, far from it. It’s that it has become seen as inevitable that one party or other (usually the Republicans) would be able to cling on to power no matter what, once they had achieved it. Once you get that sort of entitlement then someone like Roy Moore coming along as candidate becomes less surprising. The Republicans thought they couldn’t lose, no matter what, no matter who their candidate was, or what he was accused of. It was Alabama, a determinedly Red state, and their candidate had the full backing of the President. You could see that from the way Moore and his proxies ran the campaign, by trying to defend him with things that only made him seem even more guilty, in the eyes of everyone not totally immersed in the Republican bubble.
Fortunately, this time, their confidence was misplaced. But it just goes to show that a Democrat winning in Alabama is a really big deal, and that should not be minimised. Not least because by dismissing the significance of it, we ignore the huge efforts made to ensure that Moore was defeated, and underestimate the huge amounts of work we still have to do, to make sure that another Moore can’t happen.
There are things we can learn from the way the Democrats ran the election – getting advice out there about how to maintain your eligibility to vote, reminding people that optimistic polls don’t mean you can stay at home instead of voting, and so on.
The role of black people, especially black women, has also been critical to the success of Doug Jones. They are the backbone of Democratic support in Alabama, and it is only because they worked so hard to fight against the unfairness of gerrymandering policies that this result was even possible.
If this overturning of the political status quo doesn’t lead to better education opportunities, more state help, better life opportunities for them and a reversal of gerrymandering policies working against them, then it will be a hollow victory.
And that hard work I mentioned? It’s time we stopped leaving it to those at vulnerable, marginal, parts of society to make all the effort. It’s time for people of all colours and genders to work together, and for those in a more privileged position to take a far greater share of the heavy lifting, while acknowledging that we will be starting from a much better position than we deserve, because of the work of others.