Taking Back the Vote

One breakout session at the Take Back the American Dream conference in Washington, DC, October 3-4, addresses an issue that has major implications for the progressive agenda in 2012 and beyond: “Voter Supression and the 2012 Election: The Civil Rights Movement to Take Back the Right to Vote.” In dozens of states, Republicans are aiming to restrict or take away the voting rights of core constituencies of the Democratic party.

When the tea party shouts their desire to take “their country” back, make no mistake the first thing they want to take back is the right to vote. They don't just want to take it back. They want to transform it, again.

Debunked claims of “voter fraud” not withstanding, boiled down to gravy the conservative movement to restrict voting amounts to one chief concern: too many people are voting. More specifically, too many of the wrong people are voting. That's because somewhere between the nation's founding and the 2008 election, the nature of voting changed. It was transformed from a privilege to a right.

If tea party conservatives have their way, the right to vote will revert back to a privilege enjoyed by far fewer people. It's easy to dismiss media motormouths like Ann Coulter, when she says that women should not have the right to vote because too many of them vote Democratic (single women, anyway). But it's a mistake to shrug off someone like Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips, who thinks it would be a good idea to put “certain restrictions on the right to vote,” like restricting voting to property owners.

Phillips claim is reminiscent of Republican attempts to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting in the 2008 election in states like Michigan and Ohio. When right-wing pundits like Matthew Vadum (author of the ACORN “exposé” Subversion, Inc.) and Rush Limbaugh say that the poor shouldn't have the right to vote, they're expressing the same sentiment. It's a manifestation of the conservative concern that too many of the “wrong people” have too much of a voice in politics, and too few of the “right people” have any. That's what Paul Weyrich meant when he said to a group of evangelical activist in 1980: “I don't want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

In 2012 and beyond, tea party conservatives plan to increase their leverage in elections by ensuring that the “right people” have a greater voice in politics while the “wrong people” have little to none. This is mainly color. One color in particular, that is: Green. As Phillips, Vadum, Limbaugh and others make clear, the “right people” are those who have the most green; the most money, that is. Their voice in the political process was given a big boost by the Supreme Court's Citizens' United ruling, which opened the floodgates to the very corporate money that finances the tea party movement that in turn blocks campaign finance reform and promotes the interest of its corporate sponsors.

The “wrong people,” whose voting “privilege” the right is working hard to revoke, look at lot like the coalition helped Obama win the White House and the Democrats win the House and Senate in 2008, and led voter turnout in 2010. As Ari Berman detailed in his chilling report for Rolling Stone, “The GOP War On Voting,” the voting rights of millions of Americans are under threat because conservatives deem them the “wrong people” to be casting ballots.

As the nation gears up for the 2012 presidential election, Republican officials have launched an unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the elements of the Democratic vote that elected Barack Obama in 2008. Just as Dixiecrats once used poll taxes and literacy tests to bar black Southerners from voting, a new crop of GOP governors and state legislators has passed a series of seemingly disconnected measures that could prevent millions of students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots. “What has happened this year is the most significant setback to voting rights in this country in a century,” says Judith Browne-Dianis, who monitors barriers to voting as co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C.

Republicans have long tried to drive Democratic voters away from the polls. “I don't want everybody to vote,” the influential conservative activist Paul Weyrich told a gathering of evangelical leaders in 1980. “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” But since the 2010 election, thanks to a conservative advocacy group founded by Weyrich, the GOP's effort to disrupt voting rights has been more widespread and effective than ever. In a systematic campaign orchestrated by the American Legislative Exchange Council – and funded in part by David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who bankrolled the Tea Party – 38 states introduced legislation this year designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process.

All told, a dozen states have approved new obstacles to voting. Kansas and Alabama now require would-be voters to provide proof of citizenship before registering. Florida and Texas made it harder for groups like the League of Women Voters to register new voters. Maine repealed Election Day voter registration, which had been on the books since 1973. Five states – Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia – cut short their early voting periods. Florida and Iowa barred all ex-felons from the polls, disenfranchising thousands of previously eligible voters. And six states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures – Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin – will require voters to produce a government-issued ID before casting ballots. More than 10 percent of U.S. citizens lack such identification, and the numbers are even higher among constituencies that traditionally lean Democratic – including 18 percent of young voters and 25 percent of African-Americans.

The GOP war on the vote doesn't stop at the ballot box. In Pennsylvania, conservatives are toying with a scheme to change how the state rewards its electoral votes, portioning them out according to which candidates win each of its congressional districts instead of awarding them to the candidate who wins the most votes. GOP-dominated states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio may follow suit. It's not just a thinly-veiled ploy to keep Barack Obama from winning Pennsylvania again in 2008. As with conservative noise about repealing the 17th amendment, which would mean reverting to senators being elected by state legislators instead of by popular vote, it's another attempt divorce Americans from the political process.

It's not hyperbole to compare today's war on the vote to the Jim crow laws of the past, as Bill Clinton did, not with voter ID laws that bear striking resemblance to the “poll tax,” and conservatives like Newt Gingrich proposing a revival of poll tests. Jim Crow laws were themselves the result of white southerners' post-Reconstruction efforts to restrict the civil right and civil liberties of African Americans.

It's an appropriate reference for those reasons alone, but also because it reminds us of what I mentioned earlier. In the course of our nation's history, the privilege of voting was transformed into the right to vote — a right that was eventually extended to all Americans, regardless of race, gender, religion, economic status, etc. It didn't happen by accident. It was hard won, as Fannie Lou Hamer described in her famous testimony before the credentials committee of the 1964 Democratic convention, put into context below by Ta-nehisi Coates.

I briefly alluded to Fannie Lou Hamer yesterday. Hamer was born in Mississippi in 1917, and spent much of her life as a sharecropper. In 1964, in the face of constant threats and violence, Hamer and other activists organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The thing to understand here is that in 1964, 42 percent of Mississippi's population was black, and virtually all of them had been prevented from voting since 1890. Even blacks, like Hamer, who could pass the literacy tests were kept from voting by a statewide campaign of intimidation.

…In 1964, Hamer and the Freedom Democrats came to the national convention and demanded to have their own delegation—based on open and free voting seated. Forgive all the back-story. Here is Hamer's testimony speaking before the Democratic credentials committee. Listen to it. It is chilling.

To the tea party, “taking their country back” starts with taking right to vote away from minorities, the poor, the elderly, young people, etc. — the “wrong people.”
For progressives, taking back the American Dream must start with taking back and defending the right to vote. For all.