Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Voting -- the struggle is long

Happy early voter in California where a Democratic Secretary of State has made voting simple and accessible.

The rumor is out that the Prez is going to make a push for easier voting in the State of the Union speech next Tuesday. And so he should:

Democrats in the House and Senate have already introduced bills that would require states to provide online voter registration and allow at least 15 days of early voting, among other things.

Fourteen states are also considering whether to expand early voting, including the battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Virginia, according to FairVote, a nonprofit group that advocates electoral change. Florida, New York, Texas and Washington are looking at whether to ease registration and establish preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Several recent polls and studies suggest that long waiting times in some places depressed turnout in 2012 and that lines were longest in cities, where Democrats outnumber Republicans. In a New York Times/CBS News poll taken shortly after Election Day, 18 percent of Democrats said they waited at least a half-hour to vote, compared with 11 percent of independents and 9 percent of Republicans.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysis determined that blacks and Hispanics waited nearly twice as long in line to vote on average than whites. ...

Of course just because the Prez wants it and Democrats will introduce it, doesn't mean reforms to make voting easier and procedures more uniform will come about. Republicans don't like all this voting: the wrong people do it. Too many of them are young, or women without husbands, or of color. So we can expect no more than noise in most states and Congress where the Party of No retains an ability to veto.

Meanwhile this year the Supreme Court will have a chance to gut one of the prime enforcement mechanisms of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This law gave teeth to the 1869 15th Amendment to the Constitution which ordered that voting rights can't be denied on the basis of race, color or past slavery. According to legal commentator Jeffrey Toobin, Chief Justice Roberts seems to think that the Voting Rights Act represents "a kind of legal smallpox vaccine—a cure for a disease that no longer exists." That depends on where you look. Guess he's not looking at voter ID laws that exclude the very young and very old or the those long lines. Or maybe he's just okay with obstacles once perfected by the old segregationist South spreading nationwide wherever Republicans can enact them?

We might be less stunned by current efforts to restrict voting if we were more conscious of the history of Reconstruction -- the era (1865-1876) in which the post-Civil War white rebel South was fully reintegrated into these "United States." Reactionaries have been at this for a long time. Nicholas Lemann has just published a short cogent account of that period in the Washington Monthly that provides background context for current struggles. Reading it, we have to understand that in those days, it was northern Republicans who stood for (and to benefit from) Black votes, while Democrats stood with resisting whites.

The right to vote had given the Black former slaves access to political power in the conquered white South. White people didn't like the election of a slew of Black politicians.

None of this was especially popular in the North, and it was wildly unpopular in the white South. Most of the rest of America chose to understand black political empowerment in the South in terms that are still familiar in conservative discourse today: excessive taxation, corruption, and a power imbalance between federal and state government. These arguments were more presentable than simply saying that black people shouldn’t be allowed to vote, and they built sympathy for the white South among high-minded reformists in the North who were horrified by the big-city political machines that immigrants had created in their own backyard. Good-government reformers hated the idea of uneducated people taking over the democratic machinery and using it to distribute power and patronage, rather than in more high-minded ways. Liberal northeastern publications like the Nation, the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s Weekly were reliably hostile to Reconstruction, and their readers feasted on a steady diet of horror stories about swaggering corrupt black legislators, out-of-control black-on-white violence, and the bankruptcies of state and local government.

The Ku Klux Klan, which began in the immediate aftermath of the war and was suppressed by federal troops, soon morphed into an archipelago of secret organizations all over the South that were more explicitly devoted to political terror. These organizations—with names like White Line, Red Shirts, and White League—had shadowy ties to the more respectable Democratic Party. Their essential technique was to detect an incipient “Negro riot” and then take arms to repel it. There never actually were any Negro riots; they were either pure rumor and fantasy that grew from a rich soil of white fear of black violence (usually entailing the incipient despoliation of white womanhood) or another name for Republican Party political activity, at a time when politics was conducted out of doors and with high-spirited mass participation. The white militia always won the battle, if it was a battle, and nearly all the violence associated with these incidents was suffered by black people. In the aggregate, many more black Americans died from white terrorist activities during Reconstruction than from many decades of lynchings. Their effect was to nullify, through violence, the Fifteenth Amendment, by turning black political activity and voting into something that required taking one’s life into one’s hands.

…there was no mystery about what the remedy to Southern political terrorism was: federal troops. Just as in every “Negro riot” the white militia won, in every encounter between the U.S. Army and a white militia, the Army won. The Army was in the South to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteen Amendments, and it became increasingly clear that without its presence, the white South would regionally nullify those amendments through terrorism. …

Eventually Washington pols cut a deal and the southerner white supremacists were free from federal interference for nearly one hundred years. The Lemann article is an important reminder that universal voting rights are one of the pillars of a more equitable democracy and that we've never enjoyed such rights without a fight.

If the Supreme Court rules that the federal government can no longer enforce the voting rights of all, are we headed back to a situation in which many citizens will be denied the vote? If Republican Congresscritters and state governments get their way, will voting be made harder and more exclusively the privilege of the well-off and white? It's clear that today's Republicans are working for such an outcome where they can. White liberals have not always been stalwarts on the other side, but today's emerging majority -- the coalition of the ascendent that elected our improbable Black president -- is rooted in universal suffrage. So is all progress these days. We will fight to keep and extend the vote.

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