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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had just spent the week playing a big role alongside his GOP colleagues in tanking Democrats’ efforts to secure federal protections for voting rights nationwide. Voters of color are particularly concerned about how difficult it may become to participate in American democracy.
Speaking with reporters on Thursday, McConnell was asked to address those fears.
“Well, the concern is misplaced,” he replied. “Because if you look at the statistics, African-American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”
His phrasing sparked immediate backlash from Black lawmakers and many others, since African-Americans are, obviously, Americans ― yet the top Republican in Congress just suggested they are not.
“After centuries of building this nation, Republicans still don’t consider Black voters to be Americans,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) wrote on Twitter.
After centuries of building this nation, Republicans still don't consider Black voters to be Americans.
That's why not a single one of them voted to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act or the Freedom to Vote Act.
We cannot pretend that the days of Jim Crow are behind us. https://t.co/UcGC9IBTsx
— Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (@RepPressley) January 20, 2022
Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) sent a letter to McConnell’s office in which he called the remark “appalling.”
“Your comments give greater insight into your motivations for opposing voting rights legislation, and they are prejudicial and morally reprehensible,” McEachin wrote.
Charles Booker, a Democrat running to unseat Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), tweeted: “I am no less American than Mitch McConnell.”
Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D), who is running for U.S. Senate, tweeted that McConnell’s remark was “a dog whistle” ― the “same one he has blown for years.”
Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison also joined the critics.
— Jaime Harrison, DNC Chair (@harrisonjaime) January 20, 2022
In his comments on Thursday, McConnell went on to cite a survey that found 94% of respondents thought it was easy to vote. “This is not a problem,” he argued. “Turnout is up.”
I am no less American than Mitch McConnell.
— Charles Booker (@Booker4KY) January 20, 2022
Mitch McConnell’s comments suggesting African Americans aren’t fully American wasn’t a Freudian slip — it was a dog whistle.
The same one he has blown for years.
— Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (@malcolmkenyatta) January 20, 2022
I want to personally thank Mitch McConnell
He just mobilized the biggest African American voter turnout for Midterms
— A Black Woman..The End (@battletested5) January 20, 2022
It’s true that turnout in the 2020 presidential election set an all-time record. Census data shows that in the 2020 election, Black voter turnout was only a few percentage points lower than general turnout among all eligible American voters.
But that does not mean the same will hold true for future elections, given how many state legislatures have been working to change how their elections are conducted, make it more difficult to vote, and make it easier to flip the outcome.
Last year, the Justice Department sued the state of Georgia over new voting restrictions, accusing lawmakers of unlawfully targeting Black voters. In North Carolina, a panel of judges struck down a voter identification law last fall after finding it was “motivated at least in part by an unconstitutional intent to target African American voters.”
Over the course of 2021, 19 states enacted laws making it harder for people to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.