In 1870, Congress ratified the 15th Amendment to the Constitution which declared, “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 …” In response to this amendment, a number of former Confederate states employed devices such as the poll tax, literacy tests, the grandfather clause and white primaries to ensure that African-Americans were denied their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote. When these devices failed, tactics such as night rides, bombings, lynchings, and other terrorist tactics were used to intimidate prospective African-American voters.
After years of struggle in the courts, legislatures and the streets, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibiting “covered jurisdictions” from imposing any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure … to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Some of the jurisdictions covered by the act are in Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Before he signed the 1965 act, Johnson explained, “This act flows from a clear and simple wrong. Its only purpose is to right that wrong. Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote.”
Today, this ugly part of America’s past has once again become its present. As a result of Republicans taking control of statehouses after the 2010 mid-term elections, a number of states such as Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, Mississippi (sound familiar?), and others have enacted laws imposing new restrictions for voter ID, voter registration and early voting.
According to the report Voting Law Changes in 2012 from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, these new restrictions will have a disproportionate impact on younger voters, people of color, low-income voters and those with disabilities. It’s no coincidence that these demographics also tend to vote for Democrats. According to The New York Times, “It has been a record year for new legislation designed to make it harder for Democrats to vote – 19 laws and two executive actions in 14 states dominated by Republicans …”
President Johnson said in 1965, “This right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over their own destinies.” For some reason, the very people who claim they want to “take their country back,” want to “restore America to its original ideals” and “protect liberty for all Americans” are working insidiously to deny the franchise to a significant number of American citizens, particularly younger and poorer citizens of color. Studies show that as many as 11 percent of eligible voters do not have government-issued photo ID.
The report makes it clear that the impact of these actions on the outcome of the 2012 election could be significant. Even if President Obama is re-elected, their impact on House, Senate and statehouse races could be dramatic. This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election. Based on the Brennan Center’s analysis of the 19 laws and two executive actions that passed in 14 states, it is clear 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.”
Republicans are using the pretext of “voter fraud” as the rationale for their unconstitutional attack on democracy and, specifically, voters who are more inclined to vote for a Democrat. The actual fraud is not being perpetrated by the voter; it’s being perpetrated by the Republican elected officials who continue to tell this lie. According to the editorial, “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” “None of these explanations are true. There is almost no voting fraud in America. And none of the lawmakers who claim there is have ever been able to document any but the most isolated cases.”
To his credit, Attorney General (AG) Eric holder has laid out a plan for the Justice Department to take an aggressive stance in reviewing those new laws, and he is acting on it. Just this month, the Justice Department under AG Holder’s direction blocked Texas from enforcing a new, disproportionately restrictive, voter ID law. This mirrors the action taken in South Carolina in December of 2011. President Obama and others concerned about equality and democracy in America should be more outspoken on this issue. This is a deliberate and direct attack on American democracy.
President Johnson was correct in 1965 when he said, “Presidents and Congresses, laws and lawsuits can open the doors to the polling places and open the doors to the wondrous rewards which await the wise use of the ballot. But only the individual Negro and all others who have been denied the right to vote, can really walk through those doors and can use that right and can transform the vote into an instrument of justice and fulfillment. So, let me now say to every Negro in this country: You must register. You must vote. You must learn, so your choice advances your interest and the interest of our beloved Nation. Your future and your children’s future, depend upon it and I don’t believe that you are going to let them down.”
It’s not the “Negro” who is letting “our beloved Nation” down. It’s Republicans in states such as Alabama, South Carolina, Texas and Mississippi who are trying to turn back the clock in America by closing the doors to democracy that were opened with the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In suppressing the vote in America in 2012, past is prologue.