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Dark Clouds of Yesteryear Return to Threaten Right to Vote

Neal Peirce / Jul 17 2013

For Release Sunday, July 21, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceOne of my thrills as a young political writer was to trace the long and arduous – yet eventually victorious – struggle to assure the right to vote for all Americans.

I was working on a book about the Electoral College and all the formulas for tallying votes and electing a president that had been proposed over the years. Suddenly I realized that the varieties of compromises then so widely discussed – such as dividing states’ electoral votes by district, or proportionately reflecting vote counts by state – wouldn’t do. Only a simple, direct, equal vote for all Americans, I concluded, would match the promise of a mature, fully shared American democracy. All votes equal. The People’s President, I titled my book.

But it was clear, checking history, that the American experiment had started very differently. When the Constitution was written, only propertied “freeholders” could vote – an injustice not fully corrected (and then only for white males) in the 1820s. Women were denied ballots until the Suffragist movement culminated in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (1920). Youths between 18 and 21 could fight for their country but not vote until the 26th Amendment (1971).

But the true, deep divide was our history of slavery in America. For African-Americans the struggle to vote, even after the Civil War, was painstakingly slow, each advance fiercely resisted by the states of the old Confederacy.

The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, did forbid state or local governments from denying citizens’ right to vote based on their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But the Southern states resisted, through decades of lynchings, Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, stacked literacy tests and whites-only primaries.

Only the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s, capped off by the broad federally enforced protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, finally brought justice. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. could assert, “but it bends toward justice.”

Yet today that justice – the right of free and full access to the ballot box for Americans, regardless of race, class, wealth or status – is again in doubt.

Almost immediately after the Supreme Court’s recent decision gutting major portions of the Voting Rights Act, six states of the old Confederacy – Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina and Virginia – moved quickly to impose voter photo I.D. requirements and other restrictive voting rules to which the Justice Department had taken exception.

The argument for voter identification cards is that states must guard against impersonation and other flagrant voter fraud. But repeated studies shows those offenses are so minuscule that they border on nonexistent. The real reason for the new voter I.D. laws is no mystery. It’s a deliberate effort to reduce voting by minorities, students and low-income citizens – constituencies deemed likely to vote for liberal candidates.

Today’s voter suppression effort originated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization backed by the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers and major corporate interests. And now it’s being pushed by a Republican Party that seems to have turned 180 degrees away from its 19th-century birth as the agent of liberty and the franchise for African-Americans.

Alarmingly, I see the historic march to a liberated, rights-for-all voting order in America – the cause that inspired so many of us in the Civil Rights era – being deliberately sabotaged for partisan, economic and ideological motives.

Sadly, I’ve also seen the Supreme Court I so admired in the Earl Warren era now use its powers to undermine, not undergird, American democracy. A prime example was the 2000 Bush vs. Gore decision denying a recount of the razor-thin Florida presidential vote result. That decision, delivering the presidency to the national popular vote loser, George W. Bush, in time brought the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the court. Their votes, in turn, paved the way to the infamous Citizens United decision subjecting America to uncontrolled, unreported floods of corporate dollars in elections. And now to the Shelby County v. Holder decision that eviscerates the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the crown legislative jewel of America’s long delayed, desperately needed Civil Rights revolution.

In time this trend line will surely be reversed. America’s young and growing Hispanic, Asian and African-American populations will almost certainly overcome the voting power of a Republican Party based among a white, aging, shrinking segment of the electorate. Today’s deniers of votes for minorities will slip away on a fresh demographic tide.

My first vote for president was for Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nostalgically, I can look back to an America in which there were spirited partisan rivalries but a strong (and growing) bipartisan consensus for fair rules and a broad-based, shared, respect-all America. That’s the heritage I believe should be our future. Even today, I believe it will prevail.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Posted July 17, 2013 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Neal for taking a stand and focusing attention on a Supreme Court decision that could well eviscerate those historic victories that sought to align our nation’s political system with its foundational values.

    The burden of proof and the cost of challenging any change in voting procedures has now been shifted to the citizenry to prove the intent of the law and its impact before the election takes place. This will take constant mobilization, extensive use of experts and technology to make compelling projections, and extensive resources invested in challenges. I would propose the creation of a new official commission (or a charge to the Civil Rights Commission or some offical body) to function like a civic FDA that could make a legitimated, expert determination and designate a proposed action as “hazardous to the health of democracy.” Judges could then defer to that determination or at least, enjoin implementation and shift the burden of proof back to those seeking to impose disenfranchising changes. The burden of proof needs to be shifted back to those who would impose changes that disenfranchise and particularly, those that have a demonstrably disparate impact when it comes to groups that have historically been disenfranchised.

  2. Jason Bezis
    Posted July 18, 2013 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    The late Congressman Steve Horn (R-Long Beach, Calif.) was among the Senate staff members who helped to draft the 1965 Voting Rights Act in a back office room belonging to then-Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.). Mr. Horn, then the legislative assistant to Sen. Thomas Kuchel (R-Calif.), took great pride in reminding all who would listen that it was among the few pieces of legislation in American history that originated in a minority leader’s office. Mr. Horn went on to be a political science professor, a university president and a longtime member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, but he regarded his role in co-drafting the 1965 Voting Rights bill as among his proudest achievements.

    As the 50th anniversaries of the August 1963 “March on Washington” and April 1965 “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama approach, along with the anniversaries of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, it would be fitting for Congress to enact new Section 5 pre-clearance provisions that pass constitutional muster under “Shelby County v. Holder.”

    Senator Pat Leahy and the Senate Judiciary committee have already taken steps in the right direction with the hearing on a renewed Voting Rights Act on July 17, 2013.

    Thank you, Mr. Peirce, for focusing attention on this important issue.

  3. David Cohen
    Posted July 18, 2013 at 2:09 am | Permalink

    Neal Peirce, thanks for writing so clearly and cogently on the critical need for continued voting rights and protection. Keynes said people live in the short run. The actions after the horrendous Supreme Court decision in Shelby County of many of the states affected by the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, and subsequent amendments, bears out why voting rights today faces an immediate clear and present danger.
    The Republican Party currently lacks a pro-civil rights wing. It has cast aside Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Eisenhower. The Republicans now reject a Reagan and George W. Bush who each signed improvements to the VRA into law in 1982 and 2006.
    Let us hope that conservative Representative Sensenbrenner (R-Wis), an architect of the 2006 law, will step up and lead the effort to correct the wrong headedness of five Supreme Court justices.
    The rest of us are ready to do our part so that the promise and dream of America are made real.
    David Cohen,
    Washington DC,
    July 18, 2013

  4. Mary DeWolf
    Posted July 18, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    I had to pay a $5.00 annual Head Tax before I could vote in the 1950’s. That was 1/7 of my monthly rent.
    Now the handicapped parking space is at the town hall door on the end of a wide sidewalk filled with folks preventing me from driving there. This is not an intentional denial of my right to vote, but I wonder how many similar situations exiist.

  5. Frank Beal
    Posted July 18, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this outstanding column.
    Your work is always thought provoking, but this one was especially great.

  6. Cave Johnson
    Posted July 18, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. The moral of the story is that victory, much like defeat can be considered neither permanent nor complete. We are a generation away from the Voting Rights Act. It means that those who cherish the gains made by the generation that won civil rights must demand a renewal of that commitment. The gauntlet thrown down by the Supreme Court was to demand that congress reauthorize and update the Voting Rights Act, and that the executive branch enforce it. Don’t get mad, get organized.

  7. Mike Sutherland
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    While I would agree that perhaps there are those who would like to limit access for certain voters, I think it is a ridiculous and feeble argument to say that pictured IDs being required for everyone to prove that the voter is who he or she claims to be is unfair. Even the poorest and most downtrodden is required to have a pictured government ID to buy beer, wine, etc. and will do so to feed that desire.

    My own mother, on a fixed income and with limited means to get around her city–who has never held a driver’s license– made it a point to get a pictured ID card.

    If we really think that the cost is prohibitive, let’s create a philanthropic fund to cover the cost for anyone who cannot afford to pay for it.

    Cry-baby liberals claiming that ID cards would limit (legitmate) voters or circumvent their rights sound very, very desperate using this as a slam towards conservatives–or the many others–who believe we should make certain only eligible, legal citizens are voting in our elections.

    Conversely, I feel strongly that we make every effort to ensure that legitimate voters NOT be prevented from exercising their right to vote…no exceptions!

  8. Barbara Griffith
    Posted July 21, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    I read this article in my Sunday paper but I would like someone to point out to me just where are all of the voters out there that were prevented from voting?? I never heard of any during the run for the White House. There was plenty of fraud committed with some voting 4 and 5 times simply because they were not asked for a ID. One organization uncovered a number of people that were helping anyone that asked just how they could vote more than once, this was caught on video. I think changing this outdated law is a good thing. It goes a long way to helping to keep politics a little cleaner. The past several years I have seen good people running for office that lost and feel it was because of fraud. These picture ID’s are as important as a persons drivers license photo which is used every day in the course of a person conducting their business. There is not one bank or any other institution that I know of that does not ask for the drivers license of a customer to prove who they are. They would also ask for a state photo ID card, nothing is thought about it. There is nothing racist about checking a ID and you know it.

    Every person in the US has to have some sort of photo identification. You simply can’t go through life in this country or any other without one.

  9. Neal Peirce
    Posted July 21, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Comment from Keith Thomas Leonard:
    Many years ago while sitting in an evening class, two non-traditional students stated to me, “Poor people should not have the right to vote.” Prior to that I heard a younger person declare, “Poor people should not be educated.” At that moment I inferred that their malice was not just racially motivated, but encompassed all poor people. I was, and still am, both incredulous and sad at such malignant thinking and beliefs. After all that was won many decades ago it is hard to believe that this type of personal and societal malice still exists and tragically, is gaining ground.

    Thank you for your article.

  10. arnold Long
    Posted September 3, 2013 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    I remember manning an election staff when the Aboriginal people were first granted the right to vote. The obvious pride they showed was awesome and wonderful. In Australia we have a simple system, every booth has a list of people on the electoral roll. When you collect your ballot paper your name is crossed off the roll. How simple a way of discouraging the “vote early vote often” suggestions we here from some other countries.