With rural whites massively outnumbering Black voters, Kentucky Republicans make voting easier
In Kentucky, Republicans found that the measures taken during COVID to make voting easier, like voting by mail, helped turn out their white rural base. With the Black population in the state much lower than in other Southern states, the GOP here is finding little need to suppress voting, unlike places like Georgia. The high participation by Republican voters in Kentucky left leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell smiling. | AP

Some well-intentioned liberals are praising Kentucky Republican lawmakers for making it easier to vote in the Bluegrass State instead of passing laws aimed at suppressing minority votes, most of which go to Democrats.

They’d never admit it, of course, but the Republicans approved voting “reform” legislation because it helps the GOP.

Last year, the deadly coronavirus pandemic led to emergency changes in voting rules to give Kentuckians greater and safer access to the ballot box. Mostly rural, Bible Belt conservative Kentucky is one of the reddest of the Republican Red states. Hence, the new rules were bound to work in the Republicans’ favor.

They did, big time.

The GOP base turned out in droves and blew out the Democrats just about everywhere. So state House and Senate Republicans opted to continue expanded voting via legislation.

“Red voters liked being able to vote as they did, and they and party leaders liked the outcome,” said former Louisville Courier-Journal editor David Hawpe.

Indeed.

  •  Donald Trump won again in a landslide, pocketing all but Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington) counties.
  •  Mitch McConnell romped, carrying every county save Jefferson, Fayette, and Franklin (Frankfort).
  •  All 5 incumbent GOP congressmen cruised to reelection.
  •  The GOP enhanced its already whopping majorities in the state House and Senate.

Naturally, with numbers like those, House and Senate Republicans were itching to make last year’s rule changes permanent. (The Democrats got behind the GOP legislation because they consistently support any measures to boost voter participation.)

While the GOP tide is still rising in Kentucky, it’s ebbing in swing states like Pennsylvania, where Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have significant African American populations, and purpling states like Georgia, which is close to 33% Black. In states like those, Republican majority legislatures are scrambling to pass neo-Jim Crow laws to suppress minority voting, mainly African American and Hispanic.

Kentucky is less than 9% African American, so Republican legislators saw no need to curb minority voting.

Anyway, today’s almost all-white Bluegrass State GOP puts this historian in mind of the white supremacist Democrats who dominated state government during the Jim Crow era.

They passed a string of laws segregating Blacks from whites on a less than equal basis. But unlike Democrats in the old Confederate states, all of which had significantly larger African American populations than Kentucky, Bluegrass State Democrats didn’t pass a law stripping the vote from African Americans, though Blacks overwhelmingly favored the “party of Lincoln and Liberty.” (Slavery was less extensive in border state Kentucky than in the South. And, African Americans are still more numerous in the South than in Kentucky.)

Simply put, Bluegrass State Dems didn’t disenfranchise African Americans because they figured there weren’t nearly enough Blacks from Jordan to Jenkins to threaten Democratic control in Frankfort.

Today, most African Americans vote for Democrats because, from the 1960s onward, the Democrats have championed civil rights legislation, and the Republicans haven’t. Even before Trump’s advent, the GOP had become what the Democrats were for decades: the white folks’ party.

In Kentucky and elsewhere, the GOP looks more like the party of Jeff Davis than of the Great Emancipator. The state NAACP doesn’t grade state legislators. But GOP Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and Republican Congressmen James Comer, Brett Guthrie, Thomas Massie, Hal Rogers, and Andy Barr all rated an “F” on the current NAACP Federal Legislative Report Card. Congressman John Yarmuth, Kentucky’s lone Democrat, made an “A.”

“We have such a small potential Black vote that we are not Georgia, so turnout operates differently there than it does here,” Hawpe said.

So, while Republicans in Kentucky made it easier to vote because they thought it benefited them, you can bet that if the Democrats, with a big boost from minorities, start significantly rebounding in Kentucky, GOP voter “reform” will swiftly become impermanent, and Republican lawmakers will lose no time restricting minority voting.

This article also appeared in Forward Kentucky.


CONTRIBUTOR

Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Lifelong Kentuckian Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, recording secretary for the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, webmaster-editor for the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, and a member of the state AFL-CIO Executive Board. His ninth book on the history of his state, “Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy,” was published by the University Press of Kentucky in November 2020.

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