Undoing the right to vote

March 6, 2013

Conservatives on the Supreme Court are threatening to turn back the clock--but that's only the latest threat to one of the main gains of the 1960s: the right to vote.

AS THOUSANDS of people commemorated the famous 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala., that was attacked by state troopers, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court were deliberating on whether to re-enact another part of that history--suppressing the Black vote.

In the final days of Black History Month, the court heard arguments in a lawsuit that would overturn parts of one of the main legal gains of civil right movement: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The lawsuit--which not surprisingly comes from mostly white Shelby County in Alabama--would strike down Section 5 of the act, which requires states with a history of racial discrimination, specifically in the South, to get approval from the Justice Department before they implement any changes in election laws. Attorneys for the county claim Section 5 is "out of date" and doesn't reflect changes in the South since 1965.

Antonin Scalia, the smug leader of the Neanderthal wing of the court, made it clear what his vote will be when the justices announce their decision in the summer, calling the Voting Rights Act a "perpetuation of racial entitlement."

African Americans lined up to vote in Philadelphia in 2008
African Americans lined up to vote in Philadelphia in 2008

But the right to vote for African Americans is anything but an entitlement to be taken granted in 21st century America. The opposite is true: Voting rights are under attack, and it's getting worse, with several states pushing through new voting rules, such as voter ID laws.

THE NET effect of such laws will be to suppress the vote, not protect it.

In North Carolina, for instance, where conservatives are trying to push through a strict ID requirement, the state board of elections reported that as many as 500,000 people may not have a driver's license or state-issued ID card needed to comply with the law. According to Democracy-North Carolina, this group includes people who move often, lower-income adults, seniors who don't drive, and women who change their names after marriage.

Blacks and poor whites are disproportionately affected by such laws. In North Carolina, Blacks are 22 percent of active registered voters, but they make up 31 percent of those without ID. Studies show it can be next to impossible for people without financial resources to obtain the documentation they need to meet voter ID requirements--because facilities that issue IDs are far from their homes or state offices are open just a few days a week.

To obtain a state ID now required to vote in South Carolina under a law passed in 2011, you have to pay for a passport or birth certificate. "It's the stepsister of the poll tax," Judith Browne-Dianis of the Advancement Project told Ari Berman, writing for Rolling Stone. Berman expalined: "Under the new law, many elderly Black residents--who were born at home in the segregated South and never had a birth certificate--must now go to family court to prove their identity."

After the 2010 election, conservatives went on a crusade against so-called "voter fraud," pressing for restrictions they claimed would guarantee "fairer" elections--from the ID requirements, to limiting early voting, eliminating Election Day registration and requiring proof of citizenship for registering to vote.

But these laws aren't about eliminating fraud--they're about eliminating Black voters from the rolls.

For all the Republicans' caterwauling about fraud, few cases of voting improprieties have actually been proven. Take South Carolina, where voter ID supporters' claims about "hundreds" of dead voters casting ballots prompted passage of the 2011 law. After an investigation, the state's election commission announced its finding a year later: There was no evidence of a single fraudulent vote being cast.

The relevance of the Voting Rights Act is obvious given that six of the nine states fully covered under Section 5 have passed new voting restrictions since 2010. The promise of equal representation under the law is far from achieved for Black Americans in the South.

But this isn't just a Southern problem either. Nineteen states passed more than 24 measures in 2011 and 2012 that make it harder to vote--"the biggest rollback in voting rights since the Jim Crow era," according to the Brennan Center's Myrna Pérez and Lucy Zhou, writing in the Christian Science Monitor. The 19 states are all over the country, including New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Alongside formal restrictions have come other measures that have the effect of limiting African American votes--like burdensome rules affecting groups that register new voters. In Florida, for example, people registering voters face steep fines and a felony conviction if they don't comply with various arbitrary rules, such as handing in registration forms 48 hours after obtaining them.

The Republican attack on the grassroots organization ACORN--consisting of claims, zealously repeated by the right-wing media, that the group committed fraud during registration efforts--ended in the group shutting its doors.

The racist suppression of voting takes other forms as well--for example, the way legislative districts are drawn to minimize the power of African Americans or other targeted groups. Shelby County, Alabama--the very county that piously lectured the Supreme Court about why voting rights protections were "outdated"--is a perfect example, as Ari Berman reported in the Nation:

Before local elections in 2008, the city of Calera redrew its city boundaries, eliminating the City Council's lone majority-Black district, represented by Ernest Montgomery since 2004. The city decreased the Black voting-age population in Montgomery's district from 71 percent to 30 percent by adding three overwhelmingly white subdivisions, while failing to include a large surrounding Black neighborhood.

DURING THE arguments at the Supreme Court last week, Attorney General Eric Holder and his Justice Department defended the importance of maintaining the Voting Rights Act.

But Holder and the Obama administration have had nothing to say about a more widespread and systematic form of suppressing the Black vote, one that is taking place across the country: The loss of voting rights for millions of people who are under the control of the criminal justice system.

Because of voter disenfranchisement laws, a felony conviction can become a life sentence as far as voting rights are concerned--as former prisoners discover they can no longer cast a ballot, even long after they've served their time. According to the ACLU, 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of past felonies, and as many as 4 million of them are no longer in prison. There are 11 states in which a prisoner can lose his or her right to vote for life.

Because of the racism that determines who gets ensnared in the criminal justice system, felony disenfranchisement disproportionately harms African Americans. There's a long history to that, as well: After the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right of freed Black slaves to vote became part of the Constitution, Southern states tried to strip away this newly won right with laws taking away the vote for criminal convictions.

Today, this racist legacy continues. According to the Sentencing Project, "1 of every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than non-African Americans. Nearly 7.7 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the non-African American population."

Activists of the civil rights movement gave their lives in places like Selma, Ala., in the struggle for equality. And in the North, antiracists recognized that the struggle against discrimination wasn't isolated to the South, but had to be fought in their own cities as well--they took courageous stands for equal justice in housing and jobs and schools.

These battles are far from over. Yet the conservatives on the Supreme Court want to turn back the clock to before the civil rights movement ever happened.

The need for a new antiracist movement couldn't be more clear--to take up all the expressions of discrimination and bigotry woven into the fabric of U.S. society, from the right to vote, to the right to a quality public education, to the right to walk the streets without fear of incarceration and a life forever ruined by the criminal justice system.

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