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Unmasking “ignorance”


In Utah, the deadline for voter registration is October 23. As part of our encouragement and reminder to register, we invite you to read Unmasking “ignorance” — an assessment on public narratives around voting access/suppression and mitigation of such claims.

Mary Ann Villarreal & Lisa A. Flores  •  October 19, 2020

Abstract: Recent years have seen rising public talk around voting access and voter suppression, particularly as linked to marginalized and disenfranchised populations. In this reflection, we assess varied such public conversations and identify an interesting narrative encapsulating both those arguing voter suppression as a rising concern and those minimizing such claims. Organized around “ignorance,” this metanarrative does the rhetorical work of containment.

“She can own property; she can serve in the military; she can get a job; she can pay taxes. But she can’t vote, and she didn’t know that.” 1

In February 2017, when Rosa Maria Ortega was sentenced to eight years in prison for casting her vote, she joined the ranks of many recently arrested and disproportionally punished for voter fraud. A legal permanent resident who, as the above quote clarifies, can serve in the U.S. military and pay local, state, and federal taxes, Ortega assumed that her legal residency status made her eligible. 2 But, as a permanent resident, she cannot vote. Like Ortega, Crystal Mason, arrested, charged, and convicted in 2019 for voter fraud, was ineligible to vote. A citizen and convicted felon, Mason unknowingly violated Texas voting laws when she cast her ballot. 3 So too at least five of the 12 individuals from Alamance County, North Carolina arrested for ineligible voting did not realize that they were ineligible. Like Mason, many of the so-named Alamance 12 had prior felony convictions, and in North Carolina, like in Texas, those convictions temporarily strip them of their voting privileges. 4 Laden with narrative details and visual markers that locate Ortega, Mason, and members of the Alamance 12 5 with racialized otherness, many of the accounts that detail these moments of “illegal” voting rightfully raise concerns linking racial otherness to both voter suppression and harsh sentencing.

On the other side of the same issue, in March 2020, diligent voters in some areas of Texas waited hours in line to vote, with many casting their votes long after polls had closed. Most notable among the many reports detailing the excessive delays were the stories of Hervis Rogers, the last person to vote at Texas Southern University (TSU). 6 Named “passionate and dedicated,” “impressive,” and “HERO,” Rogers arrived at his polling place just before 7 pm and voted around 1 am on Wednesday March 4. 7 While the experiences of Rogers and others voting at TSU were more dramatic than at most other polling places, their tales prompted rising questions around the causes. Some maintained that the excessive delays across Texas, many of which occurred in areas with large Black and Latinx populations, were yet one more sign of rising Republican racism; 8 others adopted a different explanation and suggested that, while troubling, the delays were the complex culmination of a series of isolated errors.

We suspect that for many readers of this journal, neither the spate of arrests for “illegal” voting nor the delays in voting came as much of a surprise. “We” know enough of the pieces of the long history of voting rights to see the patterns at play. Marginalized populations, Blacks, Latinx, Indigenous, naturalized citizens, working poor, queer, people with disabilities, those with criminal records, even some white women, have faced and continue to encounter barriers and obstacles that impede and prevent them from voting. “We” likely know or are open to considering the possibility that such allegedly racially neutral moves as shifting from traditional polling sites to so-named vote centers—a modification that promises greater ease as it also reduces, often significantly, the number of places where one can vote—mean that some populations must travel longer distances to reach the voting place. “We” recognize that such changes will result in lower voter turnout among marginalized populations. What we have not yet sufficiently considered are the rhetorical frames that link seemingly isolated moments to the larger web of white supremacy. One answer lies in containment.

Discourses of containment have a long history in U.S. culture. Typically emerging around suspect individuals and populations, those articulated as threat—white women, Black and non-Black people of color, queers, non-citizens, and those with disabilities—they manifest in narratives rife with both common and latent logics of otherness. Turning, for instance, on racialized dichotomies of civility and barbarity and gendered dichotomies of public and private, containment rhetorics have been used to tame untoward racial and gendered mobility. 9 They are linked, Jeffrey A. Bennett reminds us, to the supposed excesses of threatening bodies, revealing the often-unspoken premise of white supremacy that names whiteness through its control and regulation of the excesses of Otherness. 10

While rhetorics of containment are easily attached to various populations, scholars have begun to think through the specifics of racial containment. As Anjali Vats and Leilani Nishime suggest, racial rhetorical containment “elevates and normalizes” dominant values, further securing the discursive hold of white supremacy. 11 A discourse of regulation and control, it organizes race, bounding the ways that raced bodies move, both literally and figuratively.12 Advancing these arguments, we situate contemporary narratives surrounding voting restrictions—whether cast in accounts of those arrested for illegal voting or those detailing excessive delays in voting practices—within racial rhetorical containment and argue that the seemingly disparate reports of arrests for illegal voting and excessive voting delays converge; odd bedmates in a larger discourse of racial containment. That merger lies in the shared invocations of ignorance that together advance white supremacy.

On its own, the salience of the narrative of ignorance and the making of a mistake makes sense when attached either to individuals, particularly those identified within their vulnerability, as people of color, living in conservative states, and facing harsh sentences or as explanation for the hours-long delays across sections of Texas in the 2020 Super Tuesday elections. However, in concert, the emphasis on ignorance is telling. It should go without saying that the logics of whiteness and white supremacy are premised in dichotomies of superiority and inferiority. To be white is to be intellectually superior. Across history, that argument was used to justify colonialism and slavery. It formed the basis for arguments around phrenology and eugenics. It persists today in bifurcations of merit versus diversity. And it appears in quotidian discourses, even those critiquing the racist practices entangled with allegations of and arrests for illegal voting.

In ways both explicit and latent, these varied tales converge in their invocations of individual acts of ignorance. In the narratives surrounding illegal voting, the turn to the individual error does the familiar work of white supremacist racial containment in the simple ways in which it marks the raced bodies of Black and non-Black people of color in their ineptitude. For Ortega, Mason, and many of the members of the Alamance 12, the “illegal” voting occurred, the mediated accounts emphasize, not through malice but misinformation. The individuals didn’t know that they were ineligible to vote; thus, they made a mistake. For instance, one account of Mason’s arrest notes that she “had no idea that she was ineligible to vote,” 13 while another stresses that “many former felons who have been prosecuted for voting say they did not know they were ineligible, including Crystal Mason, who … cast a provisional ballot with the help of a poll worker.” 14 A similar narrative surrounded some members of the Alamance 12: they “did not know they were not allowed to vote while on probation. Probation officers never told their clients that they couldn’t vote, they never received notices from the elections board that they had lost their voting rights.” 15 The words of one of the 12 captures the larger sentiment surrounding much of the coverage of the arrests: “I didn’t know … I thought I was practicing my right.” 16 The typical narratives surrounding Ortega shared in this larger pattern, suggesting that she unknowingly violated voting laws: “she believed she had the right to vote.” 17 However, in a significant shift, that belief, some articles infer, could be attributed to something bigger. Where Mason was unaware of laws in which convicted felons lose their right to vote, the accounts of Ortega, a legal permanent resident, reminded readers that she “has a sixth-grade education,” 18 and is a “poorly educated woman.” 19 Still, her vote, like that of the others was framed as well-intentioned. Acts of citizenship and civic duties, these illegal votes were honest mistakes.

Activating long-standing narratives of racial backwardness and inferiority, the turn to ignorance does the reductive work of racial containment. Each of the individuals, explicitly identified across the coverage in their racial and class-based otherness, is made parallel to the others. Each attempted to move through their world in their civic responsibility, yet none knew the laws. The overlap in the narratives is critical; marked bodies slide together in their ignorance, and thus as their ignorance. That convergence is amplified through the overt connections to criminality and, in the case of Ortega, to her residency status. Where the emphasis on the individual error might circulate to mark each of the actors in their particularity, it does not do so. Instead, prompting that familiar collapse among race, intelligence, and criminality, the reiteration of ignorance across the narratives functions synecdochally to reduce racial otherness to ignorance—prompting what Sara Ahmed names the “pawnability” of race, that move in which non-white bodies are exchangeable. 20 In doing so, it solidifies the racial hierarchies that presume access to the daily acts of citizenship, such as voting, among some whites while marking racial others as failed citizens. The failure of these many individuals to know the laws around voting casts a particular and familiar threat on to raced bodies. They act upon the nation in their criminality and thus must be contained; left on their own, they are a danger to the nation, an impurity that will surely contaminate not just the election at stake but the larger patterns of law and order.

Curiously, a similar narrative frames some of the reports tracing the extreme voting delays in March of 2020. As we note above, many accounts, reminding readers that the delays were highest in predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods, argued voter suppression. Others, however, attributed the delays to a range of causes, including unexpectedly large voter turnout, particularly among those voting Democratic, staffing issues, perhaps linked to fears of the COVID-19 outbreak, old machines, insufficient training, and technological glitches. 21 In short, the delays were explained as simple errors and mistakes—“flawed elections administration.” 22 In the words of one journalist, the confluence of these various causes were evidence that racial animus was not at play: “despite voter suppression concerns, the primary breakdowns apparently reflected snafus more than malign intent.” 23 Those errors, snafus, and mistakes were then credited to errant individuals. Texas’ Harris County Clerk, Diane Trautman, was identified as one such problem person. According to Paul Simpson, chair of the Harris County Republican Party, Trautman refused calls for joint primaries thus amplifying the delays for those voting democratic: “The county clerk … failed to follow our suggestion to avoid the lines that we predicted last summer were going to happen.” 24 Elsewhere, the blame was put on individuals who did not show up to work at their assigned location: “eleven people responsible for opening different polling locations did not show up for work over fears of catching the coronavirus,” 25 or on isolated instances: “Some of the problems arose when a poll worker removed a unit to take outside for someone to vote curbside, disconnecting a row of the machines.” 26

Like the attributions of ignorance and unintentional error that permeate the tales surrounding illegal voting, these arguments of individual error and snafu activate racial containment and white supremacy. A similar parallelism plays out. As each account narrates a comparable version, race is made. Here that race making is whiteness. The individuals, whether it is Trautman, the workers who failed to show up, or the poll worker who inadvertently unplugged the machine, are draped in their innocence and thus their whiteness. At play here is a comparable synecdochal move; the difference lies in the trope at play. White purity, rather than racialized primitive criminality, informs this discourse. Each ignorant or mistaken individual is one part of a larger argument that proclaims racial neutrality. It is simple coincidence, readers are to believe, that the “perfect storm” of errors affected predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods and communities. 27 Voting practices themselves remain untouched. 28

Beyond the above moves, the emphasis on individual ignorance does the very familiar work of racial erasure. We do not doubt that many individuals with felony convictions are unaware of the array of implications those convictions carry. Nor do we question the string of individual errors that contribute to excessive voting lines. Put together through the frame of ignorance, these disparate yet aligned tales direct attention away from the structural and the systemic, the cultural and the political. That erasure amplifies the containment. We can think about each iteration of ignorance, snafu, or mistake as one small micro aggression, easily dismissed, particularly in the accounts of voting delays, as unintentional. Together, however, they become an abusive accumulation of whiteness, part of the larger system that repeatedly subjects minoritized individuals and populations to the long histories and daily practices of violence. We are reminded of the familiar scene in many Peanuts cartoons and comics, the perpetual abusive invitation by Lucy to Charlie Brown—“come kick the football”. Again and again, Charlie Brown ventures forth, only to be subject once more to the seemingly small childish prank. But the prank is not so small. Each new reenactment of it adds to the legacy of violence and abuse. Rhetorical modes of racial containment, such as the persistent collapse of structural barriers to individual mistakes and ignorance, operate in much the same way. Those arrested for unknowingly voting illegally venture forward into the realm of national civic duty, only to be caught yet again in the everyday pranks of whiteness, while the ones responsible for the little mistakes that perpetuate the long histories of white supremacist voter regulation remain exempt from national scrutiny. These are the modes and manners of racial containment and white supremacy.

Notes

  1. Clark Birdsall, attorney, qtd. in Michael Wines, “Illegal Voting Gets Texas Woman 8 Years in Prison, and Certain Deportation.” New York Times, February 10, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/10/us/illegal-voting-gets-texas-woman-8-years-in-prison-and-certain-deportation.html.
  2. Wines, “Illegal Voting.”
  3. Sandra E. Garcia, “Texas Woman Sentenced to 5 Years in Prison for Voter Fraud Loses Bid for New Trial,” New York Times, June 13, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/13/us/texas-woman-voter-fraud.html.
  4. Jack Healy, “Arrested, Jailed, and Charged with a Felony. For Voting.” New York Times, August 2, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/02/us/arrested-voting-north-carolina.html.
  5. Reports name nine of the 12 as Black. See, for instance, Lynn Bonner, “Felony Charges of Illegal Voting Dismissed for Five NC Residents,” News & Observer, August 13, 2018, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/article216584335.html.
  6. See, for instance, Devan Cole, “Texas Voter Says He Waited ‘A Little Bit Over Six Hours’ on Super Tuesday to Vote,” CNN Politics, March 4, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/04/politics/texas-voter-hervis-rogers-long-line/index.html.
  7. As quoted in Jen Rice and Paul Debenedetto, “‘It’s Worth It’: The Last Person in Line at TSU Waited Six Hours to Vote on Super Tuesday,” Houston Public Media, March 4, 2020, https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/politics/election-2020/2020/03/04/362610/its-worth-it-the-last-person-in-line-at-tsu-waited-six-hours-to-vote-on-super-tuesday/
  8. Peniel Joseph, “Long Voting Lines Put Voter Suppression Front and Center,” CNN, March 4, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/04/opinions/texas-primary-super-tuesday-voter-suppression-joseph/index.html; Jason Lemon, “Hours-Long Super Tuesday Voting Lines in Texas County Lead to Accusations of ‘Voter Suppression,’” Newsweek, March 4, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/hours-long-super-tuesday-voting-lines-texas-county-lead-accusations-voter-suppression-1490560.
  9. Karrin Vasby Anderson, “‘Rhymes with Rich’: ‘Bitch’ as a Tool of Containment in Contemporary American Politics,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 2, no. 4 (1999): 599–623, www.jstor.org/stable/41939546.
  10. Jeffrey A. Bennett, “Containing Sotomayor: Rhetorics of Personal Restraint, Judicial Prudence, and Diabetes Management,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 104, no. 3 (2018): 257–78, https://doi.org/10.1080/00335630.2018.1486033.
  11. Anjali Vats and LeiLani Nishime, “Containment as Neocolonial Visual Rhetoric: Fashion, Yellowface, and Karl Lagerfeld’s ‘Idea of China.’” Quarterly Journal of Speech 99, no. 4 (2013): 425, https://doi.org/10.1080/00335630.2013.833668.
  12. Stephen M. Underhill, “Urban Jungle, Ferguson: Rhetorical Homology and Institutional Critique,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 102, no. 4 (2016): 402, https://doi.org/10.1080/00335630.2016.1213413.
  13. Dominique Mosbergen, “Crystal Mason, Sentenced to Jail for Illegal Voting, Says She Refuses to Be Intimidated,” Huffington Post, October 1, 2019, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/crystal-mason-illegal-voting-voter-suppression_n_5d92e363e4b0e9e76051ee3e?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAFWZa0BapXk797HN8s_6N3X9RoB_Xmfnj1FNdhY8nTLCCTsToBtv92TKID7yP5k2VJWZjgoOn5tVwn1zfaqcF93Xy00nSZnhWEjd9D4Fy3t7RyiO3A5OdGKKS6FUA63M2xia1mEmjOpxNg3i9BUy6RlCb_y9ka5ffM_YUmyaU7Ca.
  14. Farah Stockman, “They Served Their Time. Now They’re Fighting for Other Ex-Felons to Vote,” New York Times, May 11, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/11/us/voting-rights-felons.html.
  15. Bonner, “Felony Charges of Illegal Voting.”
  16. Healy, “Arrested, Jailed, and Charged with a Felony. For Voting.”
  17. Anna M. Tinsley and Deanna Boyd, “Prison-Bound? Grand Prairie Mom Sentenced to 8 Years for Illegal Voting Loses Appeal,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, November 29, 2018, https://www.star-telegram.com/news/politics-government/election/article222302160.html.
  18. Wines, “Illegal Voting.”
  19. Gus Garcia-Roberts, “Texas Woman Sentenced to Eight Years for Illegal Voting Paroled, Faces Deportation,” USA Today, February 22, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2020/02/21/rosa-maria-ortega-texas-woman-sentenced-8-years-illegal-voting-paroled-and-faces-deportation/4798922002/.
  20. Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh University Press, 2014): 79.
  21. See, for instance, William Cummings and Bart Jansen, “Long Lines Slow Voting at Polling Locations Across Texas and California,” USA Today, March 3, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/03/03/super-tuesday-long-lines-reported-polls-texas-california/4946817002/; Edwin Rios, “California Voters Face Long Lines, Glitches, and Dysfunctional Voting Machines,” Mother Jones, March 3, 2020, https://www.motherjones.com/2020-elections/2020/03/california-primary-lines-voting-machines/.
  22. Zach Despart, “Long Election Day Lines Prompt Commissioners Court to Review County-Wide Voting,” Houston Chronicle, March 12, 2020, https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Long-Election-Day-lines-prompt-Commissioners-15126709.php.
  23. Michael Wines, “Why Did it Take So Long to Vote in Texas and California?” New York Times, March 4, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/us/california-texas-voting-lines.html, emphasis added.
  24. Paul Simpson, qtd. in Alexa Ura, “Harris County’s Cascade of Election Day Fumbles Disproportionately Affected Communities of Color,” Texas Tribune, March 4, 2020, https://www.texastribune.org/2020/03/04/harris-countys-texas-southern-university-voting-delays-what-happened/.
  25. Madlin Mekelburg, “Fact-Check: What Caused Voting Delays in Texas on Super Tuesday?” Austin Statesman, March 9, 2020, https://www.statesman.com/news/20200309/fact-check-what-caused-voting-delays-in-texas-on-super-tuesday.
  26. Paul Debenedetto, Lucio Vasquez, Haya Panjwani, and Madison Alvis, “Super Tuesday Plagued by Hours-Long Wait Times in Parts of Harris County,” Houston Public Media, March 3, 2020, https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/politics/election-2020/2020/03/03/362534/super-tuesday-plagued-by-hours-long-wait-times-in-parts-of-harris-county/.
  27. Todd J. Gillman, James Barragán and Maria Méndez, “‘No One Should Wait Six Hours to Vote,’ But in Texas, Thousands Did on Super Tuesday,” Dallas Morning News, March 4, 2020, https://www.dallasnews.com/news/politics/2020/03/05/no-one-should-wait-six-hours-to-vote-but-in-texas-thousands-did-on-super-tuesday/.
  28. To be clear, there was considerable news coverage that called for needed changes.

Voter registration deadlines for Utah are October 23 by 5 p.m. (MDT). Utah offers online voter registration and continues to accept registration for mail to vote and in-person registration.

Unmasking “ignorance” was originally published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech on August 6, 2020.

Lisa A. Flores & Mary Ann Villarreal (2020) Unmasking “ignorance”, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 106:3, 310-315, DOI: 10.1080/00335630.2020.1785641

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