There’s a photo making the rounds on Facebook showing three African Americans, two males and a female, faces turned to a wall while a harsh stream of water pins them against the building. The water is hitting one of the young men directly in the back. A caption in red letters reads: “This is why I vote.” Those who remember history will identify with the photo immediately. It clearly comes from the 1950s or 60s, when African Americans and their allies said “enough” with the voter suppression tactics — the poll taxes, the literacy tests, etc. — and demanded the right to vote. For demanding equality under the law, police set dogs on them and firemen sprayed them down with hoses. But the fighters for liberty would not back down. This fire could not be so easily dampened.
Everyone knew that in parts of the country, particularly in the former states of the Confederacy, Black folks could not vote without considerable drama, if at all. They either were not permitted to vote under some trumped up trickery. Or worse, folks were threatened with losing their jobs or even their lives if they tried to vote. This went on for decades after the Civil War and Emancipation. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement brought the ugliness of this discrimination to light that something was finally done about it.
The result of the Movement’s efforts was the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 which outlawed all the voter suppression tactics used to disenfranchise African Americans and other minority voters. Section 5 of the Act further placed jurisdictions with a long history of voter suppression based on race or ethnicity on notice: if any of these states or counties want to change their voting requirements, the changes have to first be cleared by either the US Department of Justice or a three-judge panel from the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
The Voting Rights Act added teeth to the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution from 1870, which already stipulated that,
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
– quoted from Wikipedia
Somehow, the language of this Amendment did not make clear the intent that all citizens of the US should be allowed to vote unencumbered. So it required a chaser in 1965. (Of course, one must note that in 1870 women had not yet won universal suffrage rights either. That didn’t happen until 19th Amendment was ratified fifty years later.)
Well, it looks like its time for yet another chaser. After the Republican Tea Party Revolution in 2010 — you know, the one that was all about jobs, jobs, jobs — 19 states have changed voter registration laws, all requiring some form of government-issued photo ID card in order to vote. None of these laws provide an easy means of obtaining such documentation, nor, most onerously, do any of these laws create mechanisms for those who do not currently have nor cannot easily obtain government-issued ID cards to do so. And guess what populations are most affected by these laws? If you said people of color, you’d be partly right. These laws also affect students, the elderly, and the poor. Of these four demographic groups, three tend to vote for Democrats more than Republicans. Isn’t that fascinating?
The Republican led state governments which have pushed through these laws recoil in horror and take considerable umbrage at the thought that their motives are in anyway tied to the bad old days of pre-1965 voter suppression tactics. Au contraire, they all claim to have enacted these laws in the name of preventing voter fraud. Hmm, fraud. Let’s see some examples of what these laws have wrought.
In Maine, 250 out-of-state college students received a letter warning them that unless they change their out-of-state drivers licenses to Maine licenses, they could not legally register to vote, because out-of-state licenses were not good enough. In Florida, volunteer groups like the League of Woman Voters, which have conducted voter registration drives for decades, could not do so for much of this year because of fears that they might run afoul of a screwy provision in Florida’s new voter registration law. The screwy provision requires collected registration cards be turned over to voter registrar offices within 48 hours. Volunteers who do not comply with this stipulation risk fines or felony charges. So, for example, on a holiday weekend, like say Labor Day (the day I’m writing this), if LWV signed up folks to vote on Friday or Saturday, they would not be able to turn in their forms until Tuesday, because of the holiday. But, whoops! Tuesday is more than 48 hours later than Friday or Saturday. The fraud being fought in this case is the chance that LWV, or any other volunteer group registering voters, might change party affiliation on the registration cards to favor one party over another. That’s a big no-no, but not one documented to have occurred.
A judge has said recently that he planned to overturn this ridiculous provision, but the damage has already been done. Rachel Maddow has reported that the number of Democratic Party voter registrations in the state of Florida is way down this year compared to the previous two presidential voting cycles. Click here for a screen shot of The Rachel Maddow Show’s graph, as posted by Towleroad.
The graph shows that between July 1, 2003 and July 31, 2004, 111,586 Republicans and 158,957 Democrats were registered to vote. From July 1, 2007 to July 31, 2008, 95,525 Republicans and 259,894 Democrats were registered. And then we get to today. During the same time period from 2011 to 2012, 128,039 Republicans and only 11,395 Democrats were registered.
For those keeping count, Democratic registrations decreased this year by 95.62% from the 2007-08 statistic. Conversely, Republicans enjoyed an increase in registrations by 34.04% during the same period. Such a dramatic swing in registrations from one party to another stretches credulity to beyond the breaking point. It stinks to high heaven.
If we multiply these results from Florida by a factor of 19, the number of states that also changed their voter registration laws, then one can see why Republican led state legislatures made changing these laws such a high priority. Their calculus is clear. They are effectively admitting that they cannot win elections by swaying voters with their ideas, so therefore they are making it very difficult or impossible for those of other parties to vote. It’s that simple. This canard that they are trying to stop voter fraud is pure bunkum. A recent Wall Street Journal blog post states, “Efforts to measure the extent of voter fraud by compiling criminal cases have indicated that the problem isn’t particularly widespread.” Indeed, when challenged to prove that voter fraud is widespread, thus in need of a remedy, most supporters of these laws start hemming and hawing, and then make statements claiming that any fraud is bad, and it must be stopped.
Yeah, right. Fraud, in their minds, is anyone who does not vote Republican. President Obama had overwhelming support from African American and Latino American voters, from young voters, and from poor voters, the very populations targeted by these new laws. The Brennan Center for Justice warns that
These new laws could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.
The states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes in 2012 – 63 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency.
In other words, the changes made by the 19 states are enough to change the outcome of the election by disenfranchising large segments of the population. The statistics from Florida, sadly, buttress the Brennan Center’s assertions.
One of the cruel ironies of these laws is that in many places, they disenfranchise older voters, particularly elderly voters of color who never had any state-issued photo ID cards, no drivers’ licenses, no passports, nothing. Some are in their 80s or 90s and believe it or not, cannot obtain birth certificates to prove citizenship, necessary to get the required ID card to vote, because records were so poorly kept at the time of their births. Some elderly African Americans lived long enough to vote for a winning African American presidential candidate, something my own parents did not live long enough to do. Now, because of these laws, some are not able to vote at all.
This is a national outrage. Our right to vote is the bedrock of our Republic. We trumpet this right around the world to show how much better we are than other places, where people have no freedoms. There are indeed places where people cannot vote, either because there is no vote or because the system is so rigged that voting is meaningless. Now, these new voter registration laws so many Republican-led states enacted threaten to take us back to our own checkered past, a time when our own election system resembled Apartheid South Africa’s more than the ideal we claim to possess.
You don’t win elections by making it harder for your opponents to vote. You win elections based on ideas. If you can’t win based on ideas, then change your platform. If you can’t do that, then go away. But do not seize power than change the rules to favor yourselves at the expense of your opponent. That’s not democracy.
Texas, one of the 19, had their hands slapped twice by the courts. One ruling declared that their voter registration laws violated the Voting Rights Act; another ruling found that the Republican-led redistricting plan did the same. Texas is one of the jurisdictions covered by Section 3 of the Act. Unfortunately, many of the other 19 states are not so covered. However, it is significant that the Texas law was found in violation, because it means that the other states, whether covered by Section 3 or not, are also not living up to the spirit of the Voting Rights Act. We are indeed going backwards.
If Mitt Romney wins the presidency because of voter disenfranchisement, then his Administration will be illegitimate. He will become the second Republican president in a row to assume office under shady circumstances. Republicans need to take note. If the only way they can win elections is through perpetrating voter suppression, then their ideas are thoroughly bankrupt. Republican politicians who are not comfortable with these tactics need to do the brave thing, the patriotic thing, the right thing, and loudly denounce these laws. Otherwise, they are enabling fraud, they are bringing disgrace upon the country, and they are sullying the sacrifices of those who braved police dogs and fire hoses while demanding voting rights for all.
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.