Friday, July 20, 2012

History Lesson: Voter Fraud vs. Voter Suppression

In case you haven't noticed, several states controlled by Republicans have been aggressively paring the voter rolls and passing laws making it much more difficult for groups that tend to support the Democrats to vote.  One official in Pennsylvania made the mistake of actually saying the real reason for these moves out loud in front of an open mic.  Those who support these laws claim they are needed to prevent "voter fraud," a crime that's about as common as shark attacks and spontaneous combustion.

Since there are so few cases out there of voters pretending to be someone they aren't, supporters of voter suppression reach back into the historical record for precedent.  One example they keep going back to is the 1960 presidential election, when JFK narrowly defeated Nixon.  It has been an article of faith in conservative circles for years that mayor Richard J. Daley's political machine stuffed the ballot boxes with the names of the dead in order to secure the state of Illinois for Kennedy, which put him over the top in the electoral college.

Leaving aside the fact that this accusation has never been proven true, it misses the real electoral manipulation in that election.  In 1960, African Americans supported Kennedy by a wide margin, but throughout the South, due to discriminatory laws and intimidation, the vast majority of African Americans did not get to vote.  Imagine such a situation today, if say in the Egyptian elections Coptic Christians were kept from voting by the Egyptian government.  International observers from the UN and elsewhere would have attacked the election as invalid for purposefully targeting a minority group for exclusion from the polls.  The American election of 1960, if held today, would not be considered legitimate in the eyes of the international community because of its overt racism.

Of course, after five years of tireless protest and sacrifice by the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act would be passed in 1965, effectively destroying the old methods of official voter suppression in the South.  Those practices had a long history.  Before the Civil War, most states -North as well as South- had laws banning blacks from voting.  Afterwards, in the midst of Reconstruction, the Fifteenth Amendment banned the denial of the vote on the basis of race, color, or "prior servitude."  When the so-called "Redeemers" came to power in the South on a wave of racist vigilante violence and overturned Reconstruction, they found ways around the Constitution.  Poll taxes, violent intimidation, literacy tests, whites-only Democratic primaries, and the infamous "grandfather clause" all contributed to the suppression of the black vote.

What many people don't know is that not all of these tactics survived until 1965, and that the system of voter suppression proved itself very skilled at adapting itself to having some of its favorite mechanisms declared unconstitutional.  Way back in 1915, in a case brought through the courts by the fledgling NAACP, the Supreme Court struck down the grandfather clause, and in 1962 the Twenty-Fourth Amendment invalidated the poll tax.  Despite these changes, in 1964 only 6.7% of African Americans in Mississippi were registered to vote.  Not until the Voting Rights Act, which the federal, rather than state government enforced, would real change occur.

While a lot has changed in 1965, voter suppression has not gone away.  In some cases this is the result of legislation making voting contingent on forms of ID that many Americans do not have.  In other cases, the racism of the justice system leads to voter suppression.  As Michelle Alexander has demonstrated in The New Jim Crow, the imbalanced waging of the war on drug has led to a disproportionate number of African Americans being convicted of drug felonies and then losing the right to vote.  Many states that prevent convicted felons from voting not only replicate the racism of a criminal justice system that targets blacks more than whites, but have also prevented citizens from voting who share the same name as a felon.

Beyond the legal system, there have been well-documented cases of deliberate misinformation about voting spread with the intent of suppressing the vote.  During the Wisconsin recall election of Scott Walker, people who signed the petition to get him out of office received robocalls telling them they didn't need to vote.   A similar thing happened in 2010 in Maryland.  In Massachusetts two GOP operatives put up signs in a polling place demanding photo ID to vote, even though that was not a requirement for voting in the Bay State.  It's become de rigeur for Republicans to hand out flyers intentionally misleading voters about what day the election will take place.

As you can see, this nation has a long history of suppressing the vote which continues to this day, particularly the ballots of African Americans.  Despite this obvious fact, somehow our politicians are allowed to continue this suppression in the most aggressive fashion since Jim Crow while justifying their actions as a response to chimerical "voter fraud."  It's time to change the public discourse, and part of that is using history to show that voter suppression has always been a much more significant problem in this nation's life than voter fraud.

1 comment:

Brian I said...

Also, I would point out that when voter fraud does happen (such as in 1960), the fraud is usually carried out by the people manning the boxes, not those who are waiting in line to vote.