‘Block the Vote’ Blowback

GOP photo ID voting laws have energized African-American activists. Their anger could end up helping Democrats in November.

Theo Anderson April 9, 2012

Voting signs at a polling location in Selma, Ala., for the 2008 presidential election. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In 2008, when Sen. John McCain won just four per­cent of the black vote, it looked like the GOP couldn’t do any worse among African Amer­i­cans in a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. But that’s now a real possibility. 

This kind of engagement by religious institutions was critical to the civil-rights movement half a century ago.

Repub­li­cans were pleased with George W. Bush’s 11 per­cent share of the African-Amer­i­can vote in 2004, and they hoped to do even bet­ter four years ago. But that was before Bush’s dis­as­trous response to Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na, and before Democ­rats chose Barack Oba­ma as their pres­i­den­tial candidate. 

The GOP’s recent behav­ior has done noth­ing to help the party’s rep­u­ta­tion among African-Amer­i­can vot­ers. In Jan­u­ary, for exam­ple, South Carolina’s Repub­li­can Attor­ney Gen­er­al, Alan Wil­son, announced an inves­ti­ga­tion into the fact that more than 900 dead peo­ple had vot­ed in recent state elec­tions. The sub­se­quent inves­ti­ga­tion turned up a lot of human error but no fraud. 

Still, Repub­li­cans have used such false charges of wide­spread fraud to mount an aggres­sive block the vote” cam­paign, and they’ve pushed through new restric­tions on vot­ing rights in 14 states, accord­ing to a report (PDF) released last year by the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Col­or Peo­ple. The restric­tions include pho­to ID require­ments and pro­vi­sions that will cur­tail vot­er access to reg­is­tra­tion, inhib­it crit­i­cal vot­er reg­is­tra­tion dri­ves, lim­it vot­ing peri­ods and tight­en the abil­i­ty to cast ballots.”

Accord­ing to the report, there is a clear method to the way the restric­tions have been imposed. They’ve become law pri­mar­i­ly in states with large com­mu­ni­ties of col­or where polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tions has surged.” To put it blunt­ly, they’re aimed at sup­press­ing the black vote. 

The good news is that this cam­paign to cur­tail vot­ing rights is spark­ing an increase in polit­i­cal activism and engage­ment by African-Amer­i­can church­es, whose orga­niz­ing mus­cle will play an impor­tant role in the 2012 elec­tion. Over the longer term, these insti­tu­tions might also become key play­ers in a coali­tion of pro­gres­sive activists. 

The seeds of a new era of activism are evi­dent, for exam­ple, in the embrace of the Occu­py move­ment by some promi­nent black reli­gious leaders. 

Among the most promi­nent is Rev. Jamal Har­ri­son Bryant, who is now pas­tor of the Empow­er­ment Tem­ple megachurch in Bal­ti­more and was for­mer­ly the nation­al youth direc­tor for the NAACP. In Jan­u­ary, an arti­cle in the Wash­ing­ton Post not­ed the grow­ing ties between Occu­py D.C. and the city’s African-Amer­i­can pas­tors, includ­ing Bryant. On Mar­tin Luther King Day, pas­tors across the U.S. coor­di­nat­ed with the Occu­py move­ment to hold protests at ten Fed­er­al Reserve Banks. 

More recent­ly, Bryant and oth­er reli­gious lead­ers have been pro­mot­ing the Empow­er­ment Move­ment, which is a vot­ing ini­tia­tive that takes direct aim at the GOP’s anti-vot­ing efforts. It aimed to reg­is­ter 1 mil­lion African-Amer­i­can vot­ers on East­er by encour­ag­ing the nation’s esti­mat­ed 50,000 African-Amer­i­can church­es to hold a reg­is­tra­tion dri­ve. The cam­paign has the sup­port of sev­er­al denom­i­na­tion­al bod­ies, and the dri­ve will con­tin­ue this spring. 

The Empow­er­ment Movement’s ambi­tious goal seems to be cre­at­ing gen­uine, grass­roots ener­gy. An arti­cle in the Water­loo (Iowa) Couri­er last week not­ed that a local pas­tor, Rev. Frantz Whit­field, had been orga­niz­ing local efforts and planned to dis­trib­ute fliers and reg­is­tra­tion forms to pas­tors in the city’s 30-plus pre­dom­i­nant­ly black church­es.” Whit­field con­nect­ed the effort to East­er by offer­ing that we want to res­ur­rect our right to vote.”

This kind of engage­ment by reli­gious insti­tu­tions was crit­i­cal to the civ­il-rights move­ment half a cen­tu­ry ago. A vast net­work of church­es sup­plied the move­ment with lead­ers, laypeo­ple and orga­niz­ing savvy – and a prophet­ic lan­guage, deeply root­ed in their faith tra­di­tion, with which to cri­tique the injus­tices of Amer­i­can society. 

Only time will tell whether the recent alliances between Occu­py and African-Amer­i­can church­es, and ini­tia­tives such as the Empow­er­ment Move­ment, are tem­po­rary bursts of activism or the ear­ly stages of a bur­geon­ing move­ment on behalf of civ­il rights and eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty. But what­ev­er they are, they have con­se­quences for this fall’s elec­tions at all levels. 

Even with­out the GOP’s efforts to sup­press vot­ing, the African-Amer­i­can vot­er turnout has his­tor­i­cal­ly been low­er than that of whites. In 2008, 65.2 per­cent of eli­gi­ble black vot­ers cast a vote, which was an increase of near­ly 5 per­cent over 2004 – but still low­er than the 66.1 per­cent of eli­gi­ble whites who vot­ed. An uptick of just a few points can eas­i­ly swing close races, since African Amer­i­cans vote over­whelm­ing­ly Democratic. 

As count­less pop and coun­try songs have observed over the years, you nev­er know what you’ve got till it’s gone. The GOP’s quest to effec­tive­ly dis­en­fran­chise vot­ers might become the best vot­er-reg­is­tra­tion dri­ve and get-out-the-vote cam­paign that the Democ­rats could have hoped for. By cur­tail­ing African Amer­i­cans’ most basic right as cit­i­zens, Repub­li­cans may be fuel­ing a fire that burns out of their control.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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