Friday, December 11, 2015

Change we once believed in -- and mustn't let be washed away

Once upon a time, I remember hearing frequently from anarchist-leaning friends:

If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal.

Apparently contemporary Republicans agree. Since 2010, 21 GOP-controlled states have enacted measures to make voting less accessible, more difficult.

And once upon a time, Black people in the U.S. thought the right to vote was so valuable that people were willing to risk their lives to win it.

Ari Berman's Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America is a narrative history of the Voting Rights Act (VRA); it was first passed in 1965, extended largely intact as recently as 2006, and now is in the process of being rendered void by the right-wing majority on John Roberts' Supreme Court.

Berman anchors his tale through the life story of Georgia Congressman John R. Lewis, who was beaten bloody marching for voting rights 50 years ago, struggled through the difficult process getting southern Blacks registered and then defeating the various subterfuges states used to nullify their voting strength, and has survived in Congress to watch Republican-appointed judges enable Republican legislatures to hue away much of what a lifetime of campaigning had won.

This is a richly detailed history. Most of it was familiar; after all, I've worked in elections trying to increase turnout among people of color for a long time. But by plumbing archives, court cases and legislative battles, Berman brings tidbits to the fore that I never knew. Who'd have thought that Republican Congressman Henry Hyde (of the infamous Hyde amendment that prohibits the feds from paying for women's legal abortions) would have been convinced by personal testimony from Black voters that they were still being denied voting rights fifteen years after the VRA was first passed? Hyde was instrumental in the improbable 25-year extension won in the first year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, otherwise a bleak period for civil rights.

One detail that Berman brings forward should be a cautionary tale for progressives if we ever win anything important again. Lyndon Johnson insisted that when the VRA was first passed, his Justice Department should hit the ground running, bringing registrars into recalcitrant counties and filing lawsuits within days.

It was imperative, given the high stakes of the law, that the rollout go as smoothly as possible. "Doing everything so quickly sent a signal that there would be no temporizing with the new law, said [Justice Department attorney John] Doar's first assistant, Stephen Pollak. "On every front, it was important to be out of the box right away because that was the best way to foster voluntary compliance."

The Obama administration could have used that lesson when it succeeded in passing the Accessible Care Act.

Berman makes one unequivocal claim which demonstrates why Republicans hate the VRA so much: the electoral result of Black voting was what kept right-wing nut-job Robert Bork from being installed on the Supreme Court by Reagan in 1987.

In 1965, sixteen of twenty-two southern senators opposed the VRA. Twenty-three years later, sixteen of twenty-two southern senators voted against Bork.

Southern senators in office in the 1980s needed some Black votes. What's changed since and what makes the South so solidly hostile to racial and other progress is that Democrats no longer win any significant share of the white vote. In 1987, southern whites were still split between the parties and there was room to manuever. No longer.

And so, as Republicans have won complete control of state governments since 2010, they have implemented a Second Reconstruction, a torrent of measures like shorter voting periods, more difficult registration processes and requirements for expensive IDs that aim to reduce voting. And activists are once again out there, struggling to help very poor and marginalized, mostly Black, southerners to become part of the electorate.

Berman quotes Harvard historian of voting rights Alexander Keyssar:

... the right to vote can be as fragile as it is fundamental.

I guess some people fear that if we can all vote, we might just change something.

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