Voter Suppression: The Unraveling of American DemocracyNews at Home
Ruth Rosen, Professor Emerita of History at U.C. Davis, is a scholar in residence at the Center for the study of Right Wing Movements at U.C.Berkeley, a former columnist at the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle and the author, most recently of "The World Split Open; How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America."
Editorial cartoon in an 1879 edition of Harper's Weekly. Caption: "The color line still exists -- in this case."
How will the American presidential election be won in November 2012? By the Republicans buying the election? Perhaps. But money cannot always buy an election. That is why Republicans have spent the last four to six years passing a spate of voter suppression laws in "swing states" that will make it more difficult and costly for the young, the elderly, minorities, union members and single and elderly women to cast a vote for Barack Obama.
Although the Republican effort is not exactly a secret, few Americans are discussing it with the urgency it deserves. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law says that since the start of 2011, 16 states -- which account for 214 electoral votes—have passed restrictive voting laws. Each law is different: some curb voter registration drives; others require new and costly forms of identification; and still others insist that voters produce government-issued photo IDs at the polls. The Brennan Center also points out that:
"[T]he scope of the suppression movement and its potential impact are staggering ... as many as 11 percent of eligible voters -- roughly 21 million Americans—lack current, unexpired government-issued photo IDs. The percentages are even higher among seniors, African Americans and other minorities, the working poor, the disabled and students -- constituencies that traditionally skew Democratic and whose disenfranchisement could prove decisive in any close election."
The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have been trying to gain injunctions against laws passed by Republican-dominated state legislatures, but with mixed success.
The Republicans argue they are preventing voter fraud. But is there a significant amount of voter fraud? Or is this a partisan effort to find a solution to a problem that doesn't exist? The Bush administration spent five years (2002 to 2007) searching for voter fraud and found only 86 cases. The Brennan Center for Justice, as well as the ACLU, have also found infinitesimal instances of voter fraud.
The sudden need for unexpired passports, the demand for government-issued photo identification, is simply a flagrant way of suppressing the votes of those who are more likely to vote Obama. The new identification requirements make it difficult, if not impossible, for some citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote. In some states poll hours have been expanded for likely Republican voters and decreased for probable Democratic voters. Many elderly people no longer have their birth certificates. Many minorities and young people don't own cars and therefore don't have driving licenses. Young people often don't have access to any of these records when they live far away from their parents. But those who vote by absentee ballot -- suburban voters who tend to be independents or Republicans -- are not required to have photo IDs. Ironically, this from a country that has consistently -- in the name of liberty and freedom -- refused to force its citizens to carry identifications cards.
What few critics seem to realize is that women -- who constitute at least half of all these targeted groups and who vote more often than men -- will be even more disenfranchised. Ever since 1980, African American women have been decisive in creating a gender gap that has helped elect Democratic presidents. And in 2012, these women -- in addition to single and elderly women -- may be prevented from protecting Obama's signature health care program, women's reproductive rights, the right to abortion, funds for Planned Parenthood, and Social Security and Medicare -- the very safety net that the Romney/Ryan Republican ticket has campaigned to eliminate or change in fundamental ways.
Consider the case of Viviette Applewhite, a 93-year old resident of Pennsylvania. She marched with Martin Luther King Jr. but cannot get a photo ID because all her papers were stolen from her purse. On three occasions she has tried to obtain a birth certificate from Pennsylvania's Division of Vital Records. Although she paid the fees, she never received one. Now, a newly engaged lawyer has been trying, once again, to obtain her birth certificate. On July 25, 2012, however, the Pennsylvania court upheld the law that may very likely prohibit her from voting.
Republicans are thrilled by their successful effort at suppressing women's votes, particularly those from African American women. The conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh recently said "When women got the right to vote is when it all went downhill because that's when votes started being cast with emotion and maternal instincts…."
Earlier, in 2007, the conservative Fox news guest and celebrity pundit Ann Coulter told the New York Observer, "If we took away women's right to vote, we'd never have to worry about another Democratic president. It's kind of a pipe dream, it's a personal fantasy of mine, but I don't think it's going to happen. And it is a good way of making the point that women are voting so stupidly, at least single women."
Now her dream may be coming true. By choosing Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate, Mitt Romney has shown his true agenda. Although Romney has flip-flopped repeatedly on women's issues, Ryan is a standard bearer for a budget proposal that would ban common forms of contraception and eliminate abortion. He also voted to end funding for Planned Parenthood and against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 that promoted fairness in the work place for women. Both men have repeatedly said they are against Obama's affordable care health program. In addition, Ryan has repeatedly said he wants to eliminate Medicare, the popular medical insurance for the elderly, and Social Security -- the country's only safety net for seniors without pensions.
Other Republicans have similarly gloated about how voter suppression will elect Mitt Romney. According to one news report, "Former Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer (currently under indictment for stealing party funds) acknowledged in a deposition that a 2009 Republican party meeting included discussions about "voter suppression and keeping blacks from voting.'" The report also revealed that "In December, Paul Schurick, a top aide to former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, was convicted of election fraud for using automated phone calls to suppress the African-American vote during Mr. Ehrlich's unsuccessful 2010 bid." Entered into evidence was one consultant's memo that described a "Schurick Doctrine" to "promote confusion, emotionalism and frustration among African-American Democrats."
The Republicans know exactly what they are doing and they have been astonishingly successful at creating different ways of suppressing votes that might re-elect the President. In an August 16th editorial, The New York Times criticized a Pennsylvania judge for upholding a Republican-backed voter ID law "that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of poor and minority state residents in November." The judge acknowledged that he "was aware of the remark made by Michael Turzai, The Pennsylvania House Republican leader, that the voter ID requirement would win the state for Mitt Romney in November" but then, in an outrageous defense of his decision, said that no proof existed that other legislators agreed with Turzai. The editorial ended with this ominous warning: "Many voters won't be able to participate in the democratic process any longer. Some won't show up at the polls, unwilling to leap the hurdles placed before them, while others will try to vote and find their ballots rejected. This lawsuit was an opportunity to sweep away barriers to full citizen ship."
This is hardly the first time the supposedly greatest democracy on earth has suppressed voting. After the Civil War, the South passed Jim Crow literacy and poll tax laws to keep African Americans from voting until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The United States, moreover, is one of the few nations that prevents former felons, in some states, from voting for the rest of their lives. In 2004, 5.3 million Americans were denied the right to vote because of previous felony convictions. In the 2000 election, former convicted felons in Florida -- disproportionably African American -- were prohibited from voting. They would have put Al Gore in the White House.
Civil rights advocates rightly call this disenfranchisement our new Jim Crow laws.
Across the country, civil rights groups continue to sue states that have passed laws to suppress voters, something that still may surprise a great number of Americans, not to mention the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the election looms closer and people who cannot meet the new requirements get fed up, feel helpless, and are less likely to go to the polling place on Election Day.
So this is America in 2012, a democracy in rapid decline. On August 21, TalkingPoints Memo reported that:
"The GOP platform committee adopted language on Tuesday supporting states that have passed voter ID and proof of citizenship laws. The citizenship amendment, proposed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), would support laws that make voters prove their citizenship before they are allowed on the voter rolls."
When the Supreme Court decided in a landmark case that the First Amendment allowed corporations and unions to give any amount of money to candidates, they turned elections into a arms race for campaign donations. The suppression of voters is the final unraveling of what used to be viewed as a democratic nation.
It is not too soon to ask the international community to monitor the 2012 American election. This is an emergency.
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