Jim Crow at the Polling Place
New voter legislation is an unwelcome blast from the past.
Progressive critics of electoral activism — those who question the ultimate significance of mainstream bourgeois politics — would do well to remember the 2010 midterms, a Republican victory that solidified the power of the Tea Party within the GOP and heralded a right-wing takeover of state governments that has immiserated millions of Americans.
A war is being waged on democracy in America.
Brazenly, with a smiling face, the Right is working to shore up the accumulated wealth and power of the 1% against any incursion by the voting hordes.
With the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, the Right — that convergence of billionaire activists, corporations, their salaried retainers, GOP officials (elected and unelected), flush think tanks, underwritten media shops and Republican-appointed judges — has already enabled the super rich and the corporations to give unlimited, secret campaign donations to elected officials and candidates.
Now, no doubt inspired by Jim Crow and our founding fathers, the Right is setting out to suppress the vote through legislative gambits.
Just as our forefathers mostly reserved the franchise for white male property holders, the most popular voter suppression scheme today requires that eligible voters hold property. The property in question: a government-issued photo identity card.
Like land in the 18th century, a valid photo ID in the 21st century is not distributed evenly among the population. According to a November 2006 BrennanCenter survey, those who do nothave current government-issued photo IDs include: 11 percent of voting-ageAmerican citizens (more than 21 millionindividuals): 18 percent of citizens age 65 and older; 18 percent of citizens age 18 to 24; and 25 percent of African-American voting-age citizens. Further, 7 percent of U.S. citizens do not have ready access to the citizenship documents that are needed to apply for a government-issued ID.
The opportunity presented by these facts is not lost on conservative strategists.
Since the 2010 midterm elections, 22 states have imposed new restrictions on voting. In 18 of those 22 states, the new laws were passed by GOP controlled legislatures, and in one, Mississippi, by popular referendum.
According to a 2014 Brennan Center report, “Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, seven have new restrictions in place. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, nine passed laws making it harder to vote.” It is no coincidence that both African Americans and Latinos tend to vote Democratic.
What’s more, since the 2010 midterms, nine of the 15 states previously covered in whole or in part by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (due to their Jim Crow-era history of race discrimination at the ballot box) have instituted new restrictions on voting. Recall that in 2013, the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder effectively prohibited the U.S. attorney general from enforcing the Voting Rights Act.
The results of the 2014 midterms — whether the Republicans take control of the Senate and whether GOP governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker win re-election — will tell us if Jim Crow is alive and well and helping the Right win its stealth war against democracy.
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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.