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Column: Yes, Mitch McConnell, African Americans are Americans too

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On the matter of whether he knows that African Americans are Americans too, let's give Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell the benefit of our doubt.

Yet he seemed to express some confusion on the matter Wednesday after Republicans, assisted by Democrats Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, blocked a Democratic-backed voting rights bill.

Asked what he would say to Black voters, among other minorities, who were concerned about access to the polls during the midterm elections, McConnell responded that they shouldn't worry.

"The concern is misplaced," he said, "because if you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans."

Oops, say what?

Surely he meant to include another clarifying word like "other" in-between "as" and "Americans."

But, after their disappointing loss, made possible by two defecting Democrats, die-hard supporters — particularly in the Congressional Black Caucus — were in no mood to show any mercy.

"African Americans ARE Americans," tweeted Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, helping the hashtag "#MitchPlease" go viral.

"After centuries of building this nation, Republicans still don't consider Black voters to be Americans," tweeted Rep. Ayana Pressley of Massachusetts. "We cannot pretend that the days of Jim Crow are behind us."

In fairness, Sinema and Manchin also helped to kill the proposal by opposing changes to the Senate's filibuster rule to bypass Republican opposition. As Manchin said in September after opposing a budget reconciliation package he thought was too pricey, "elect more liberals."

Alas, the same political reality appears to be true for measures to protect a right as fundamental as the right to vote. First you have to see a problem — and Mitch doesn't.

"In a recent survey, 94% of Americans thought it was easy to vote," McConnell continued. "This is not a problem. Turnout is up. Biggest turnout since 1900. It's simply they're being sold a bill of goods to support a Democratic effort to federalize elections."

Ah, I'm old enough — and so is McConnell — to remember when that same charge of "federalized" elections was used to oppose the 1965 Voting Rights Act, as well as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act, among other hard-won measures to dismantle the decades-old Jim Crow segregation regime.

Since federal elections affect everybody, the right to vote in those elections calls for federal protection. Yet, more than 150 years after the Civil War, the parties are deeply divided over what those "protections" should be.

In general, Republicans have tried to reform voting by making it harder for people to vote while Democrats want to make it easier. The failed bill would have banned partisan gerrymandering, protected election officials from partisan interference, required early voting and same-day registration, and restored the provision that required pre-clearance by a federal court of proposed rules in states with a record of past discrimination.

In a clarifying statement Thursday, McConnell mentioned that he has "consistently pointed to the record-high turnout for all voters in the 2020 election, including African Americans."

That's true, although Black Americans have almost always voted at lower rates than white Americans; the notable exceptions came in 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama was on the ballot — and the only years in which Black turnout surpassed white turnout.

But politics works both ways. Obama's victory sparked new energy in those who opposed him and eventually elected Donald Trump. Trump's presidency fired up a record turnout that elected Joe Biden.

Now studies indicate that new voting restrictions, like those passed by 19 states in the past year, disproportionately affect voters of color.

In the wake of the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters, the latest bill comes amid widespread and unprecedented suspicions. Major polls show a third of Americans saying they think Biden was not legitimately elected — a byproduct of Trump's relentless efforts to undermine the public's faith in any election that he has failed to win.

Most of all, turnout matters. Studies also have shown that most of the efforts to rig turnout with unfair obstacles have remarkably little effect. We still need to be eternally vigilant for fraud and other shenanigans. Most of all, the threat of voter fraud or voter suppression should be turned into a rallying cry for all of us, regardless of party, to get out and vote. After all, we're Americans. Voting is what we're supposed to do.

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Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at www.chicagotribune.com/pagespage.

cpage@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @cptime

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