Nel's New Day

September 2, 2012

Good News on the Voting Restriction Front

During Condoleezza Rice’s speech last Wednesday at the GOP convention, she said that “failing neighborhood schools” are the “civil rights struggle of our day.” She must have skipped the news since the last election about the number of states that are removing voting rights from minorities (and many others) through draconian restrictions of voting.

This last week, however, saw a movement toward correcting the injustices of this past two years when federal judges, appointed by both Republicans and Democrats, struck down these laws in six different rulings in Ohio, Florida, and Texas. Sunday has a tradition of spreading the “good news,” and this Sunday finally has good news.

Florida: A three-judge court restored early voting in five counties that are subject to the Voting Rights Act. An even more important ruling voids the state law that prevents groups such as the League of Women Voters from registering new voters because of drastic restrictions on them—a 48-hour time frame on submitting registration forms as well as fines against organizations and individual volunteers who violated the new guidelines.

Ohio: The state is required to open election polls on the weekend before Election Day. Early voting began in Ohio after the long waits in 2004 for voting. In 2008, almost 100,000 people cast their vote on the Sunday before Election Day, many of them people who had to work during the week. The judge cited Bush v. Gore (the decision that appointed George W. Bush president in 2000) in restoring this early voting.

Another Ohio achievement was the ruling that the state has to count votes cast in the wrong precinct because of mistakes made by election officials. Ohio had said that votes cast in the wrong precinct could be discarded even when the voter went to the right polling place and was told to go to another, wrong, place. In the last general election, approximately 14,000 votes were not counted because of election official mistakes.

Texas: Federal judges struck down both a strict new photo identification requirement and the election redistricting that undercut the voting power of Latinos and blacks.

South Carolina is fighting the Voter Rights Act because the state is among the 16 jurisdictions with historic voting rights violations that require approval from the Justice Department to alter election procedures. The case has gone badly for South Carolina. State Rep. Alan Clemmons (R), denied that the bill was motivated by any desire to hurt minority voters, but civil rights attorney Garrard Beeney presented evidence that Rep. Clemmons had responded positively to a racist email from one of his constituents about the bill. Sen. George “Chip” Campsen III testified at length about alleged cases of fraud he had heard about but could not cite any instances of fraud related to voter impersonation.

Other states or parts of states challenging the Voting Rights Act include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, and Texas.  Unfortunately, the conservatives on the Supreme Court have indicated sympathy for these states.

In Tennessee, Memphis is suing the city, Tennessee’s photo identification requirement for voting for “imposing an undue burden on registered Tennessee voters’ right to vote.”

Working people’s fighting against conservatives to gain and keep the Constitutional right to vote is nothing new in the United States as shown in Alexander Keyssar’s The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. Originally, only men, primarily white, who owned, not leased, a certain amount of property could vote in this country. Only Vermont, which gained statehood in 1791, had no property or tax requirements for voting. During the early 19th century, veterans mobilized to gain the right to vote, and Western states loosened the requirements. In Wisconsin, even non-citizens could vote if they said they would become citizens.

Conservatives, fearing that the urban factory workers would overrun the country, pushed against the workers’ rights. The anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic movement especially hostile to the Irish controlled voted through literacy tests, long residency requirements, and long waits for new citizens to gain voting rights, wanting 21 years but compromising on two years in Massachusetts

Even after the Civil War, blacks could not vote in 15 states and territories in 1870. The 14th Amendment declared “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” to be citizens and prohibited states to deny citizens “equal protection of the laws.” It didn’t address voting, but the 15th Amendment did. When political alliances between blacks and poor whites threatened the power of the local elites, the conservatives created the “Jim Crow” system of strict racial segregation and the end of black civil and political rights, violently enforced by Ku Klux Klan terrorism and one-party rule by ultra-racist Democrats. Poll taxes and literary tests could disenfranchised many poor whites, and the country failed to enforce the 15th Amendment until the 1960s.

Meanwhile California had banned anyone born in China from voting, and other state constitutions barred “paupers” from voting to prevent striking workers or the unemployed during the depressions of the latter half of the 19th century. Other states determined that Native Americans were not citizens because they lived on reservation land outside the state’s jurisdiction. By the early 20th century they were allowed to vote if they severed their tribal connections and sold tribal lands to non-Indians.

Women didn’t vote in federal elections until 1920 although 17 states, over one-third of the United States, permitted voting within the states. The Voting Rights Act expanded the absolute right to vote in 1965, requiring, for example, New York to drop its literacy test to keep many Puerto Ricans from voting. The 24th Amendment permanently banned poll taxes, and the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 mandated allowing voter registration by mail and in government offices such as motor vehicle bureaus.

A common ploy in this century to keep people from voting has been the purges of voter lists. Florida started this in 2000 where they disenfranchised many people with names similar to that of an ex-convict and used the excuse that it was legal because convicted felons cannot vote in that state. After an extremely close—and mis-managed—vote in Florida, the Supreme Court ruled that “the individual citizen has no constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States…” State legislatures can allow voters to choose the states’ electors who vote for president in the Electoral College, said the five justices, but the legislature can also “take back the power to appoint electors.”

Conservatives have been open about not wanting minorities, seniors, students, disabled, and the poor to vote. The following quotation from Matthew Vadum in American Thinker is just one example:

“Why are left-wing activist groups so keen on registering the poor to vote? Because they know the poor can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians.  Welfare recipients are particularly open to demagoguery and bribery. Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals.  It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country — which is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering welfare recipients to vote.”

How ironic that federal law defines the ages of people who vote but not their felony status or their ability to get a photo ID. If people are supposedly rehabilitated because they have served their time, they should be able to take their full place in society. And photo IDs have not stopped any fraud. I’m grateful that I live in Oregon where felons can vote once they leave prison and where we all vote by mail. When the law was first passed, I worried about fraud and coercion. Any possibility of that is far overshadowed by the restrictions that conservatives have placed on the majority of U.S. citizens.

A judge in the Texas case said, “As the Supreme Court has ‘often reiterated…voting is of the most fundamental significance under our constitutional structure.’ Indeed, the right to vote free from racial discrimination is expressly protected by the Constitution.”

Cheers for Vermont, the only state that upholds the spirit of the U.S. Constitution.

 

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