The Republicans’ Shameless War on Voting

Posted in: Civil Rights

There is absolutely no question that Republicans are trying to suppress non-whites from voting, throughout the Southern states, in an effort that has been accelerating since 2010.  It is not difficult to catalogue this abusive Republican mission, which unfortunately has spread, in a few instances, to states above the Mason-Dixon Line as well.

Nor is there any doubt whatsoever about why Republicans are doing this, since the demographics of the states where it is happening suggest that it is becoming increasingly difficult for white descendants of the Confederacy, with their puppet conservative politicians, and for conservatives in general, to retain control of government.

Frankly, I find this voter suppression disgusting.  Southern conservatives, who now control the GOP, have succeeded in destroying the party of Abraham Lincoln, with its once long and proud tradition of seeking to extend the voting franchise, not restrict it.

Suppressing Non-White Southern Voters

Documentation of the Republican attack on non-white and minority voters is depressingly vast and complete.  Here are just a few of the reports that I have found informative, since my writing about the GOP’s gaming the vote last October.  From the damning November 11, 2011 report from the Democratic National Committee’s Institute for Voting, entitled Reversal Of Progress, to the more recent reports like The Atlantic’s “New Voting Laws: Bending the Arc of History Away From Justice,” and the ACLU’s reports on voter suppression, the story is the same.  GOP-controlled state governments have adopted measures that restrict voting, with non-whites and minorities always bearing the brunt.

The effort started in the last few years (2006 to 2008) of the Bush II Department of Justice, when Bush’s political appointees tried to force U.S. Attorneys throughout the country, but particularly in the South, to prosecute voter-fraud cases.  However, the Administration had a fundamental problem: There was no evidence of voter fraud.  But this did not end the effort.  After Republicans won control of twenty-one states (occupying both the legislature and the governor’s office) in 2010, they began—in the name of preventing nonexistent voter fraud—enacting legislation to restrict voting.

More specifically, they adopted laws that fell into the following areas: they cut early voting, eliminated registration on Election Day, created voting challenges that could be made by one’s fellow citizens, and required photo identification for voting. And even now, they are still making efforts to change the Electoral College.  As Ari Berman writes in his piece for The Nation, “Voter Suppression: The Confederacy Rises Again,” these efforts have been particularly focused in the South, where they are clearly intended to block non-whites from voting.

Using the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, the U.S. Department of Justice has blocked many of these efforts to suppress the vote—most recently, in Texas and Florida.  But efforts to block these voter-suppression laws at the state level have been mixed, with Republican judges often refusing to block these unconstitutional efforts to impede voting.  While this situation has dominated in the South, a few Republicans in the North are now playing the game as well.

For example, a politically-ambitious Republican Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge, Robert Simpson, refused to enjoin a new Pennsylvania voting law, finding a technical reason to let it go into effect, notwithstanding there being no showing of potential fraud, but rather a clear showing of likely voter suppression among minorities in big cities, if the bill were to survive judicial review.

What is striking about this radical and regressive behavior is that Republicans were once champions of increasing, and spreading, the vote.  But that, of course, was before the Southern conservatives took effective control of the GOP.

Repudiating Republican History 

From the election of President Abraham Lincoln until that of President Ronald Reagan, Republican Presidents had been leaders in, and the Republican Party had been highly supportive of, all efforts to empower voters.  Before Reagan, I am not aware of any widespread thinking that would have even tolerated the idea of intentionally disenfranchising voters.  Citing a few examples, from the 1920s to the 1970s, of which I have personal knowledge or involvement will broadly make my point.

President Warren G. Harding. When writing a biography of Warren G. Harding, I was surprised to find that, in the early 1920s, he actively considered how to create a two-party South that would include blacks in the Republican Party.  By the 1920s, Lincoln and the post-Civil War Reconstruction era had driven most whites in the South into the Democratic Party, where they remained until they were wooed in large numbers with radical GOP policies in the 1980s.

Harding’s predecessor, President Woodrow Wilson, had grown up in the South and never overcame the racism he learned there.  Indeed, Wilson actively discriminated against blacks as President, blatantly removing them from any and all positions that he controlled within the federal government.

On October 26, 1921, President Harding launched his delicate initiative to bring Southern blacks into the GOP by traveling to Birmingham, Alabama, where a large—albeit segregated—audience had been assembled to hear him.  As I wrote in my Harding biography, it was a “bold and atypical in-your-face move by Harding toward Democratic office-holders in the South,” not to mention a “daring and controversial speech” at the time it was delivered.

Harding told his audience that it was time for political and economic equality of the races, and he made very clear what he meant by political equality: “I would say let the black man vote when he is fit to vote; prohibit the white man voting when he is unfit to vote.”  Citing the New York News, I reported that the white audience sat in stony silence, as Harding “squared his jaw and pointed straight at the white section” and declared, “Whether you like it or not, unless our democracy is a lie you must stand for that equality.”

Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. GOP President Dwight Eisenhower announced his support, in a 1954 State of the Union address, for eighteen-year-olds to be given the vote.  While the idea was not voted against, nothing serious developed.

By 1970, the Nixon Administration, acting through yours truly—who was then the Associate Deputy Attorney General for Legislation—informed Congress, quietly and off-the-record because there were serious potential Constitutional issues, that the president would not veto an extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that included a provision requiring a voting age of eighteen for all local, state and federal elections.

Congress then passed the law and, in June 1970, President Nixon signed it.  The law was quickly challenged by Texas and Oregon, and by December 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Oregon v. Mitchell that while Congress could set the qualifications for voting for federal elections, it could not do so for state or local elections.

Young people, many of whom were fighting in Vietnam, were not happy.  Thousands let Congress know of their displeasure. By March 10, 1971, the Senate voted 94-to-0 for a Constitutional Amendment to enfranchise those who were eighteen years of age and older. Within two weeks, the House of Representatives voted 401-to-19 for the Amendment; and within four months, the requisite three-fourths of the state legislatures had adopted it.  It was the fastest that any amendment to the Constitution had ever been adopted.

On the afternoon of July 6, 1971, I happened to be going to the East Wing of the White House and I could hear singing floating into the hallway. It was a truly magnificent rendition, by young voices, of  “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I was drawn by the sound into the East Room, where I discovered that the President was hosting a certification ceremony for the adoption of the 26th Amendment, attended by young people—some 500 boys and girls of the Young Americans In Concert choir.

Although a president has no formal role in the Constitutional amendment process, other than modern presidents’ tradition of being witnesses to the certification, Nixon was clearly showing his support for young people to vote, with the ceremony.  A few days later, I received a message from the president.  He wanted all of his younger aides to think of ways to get young people to vote.  Today, I seriously doubt that a President Romney would encourage young people to vote, since they have overwhelmingly become Democrats, or progressive independents.  Any initiative to reach the young now would only be likely to deny a hypothetical President Romney a second term.

Be Thankful for the Voting Rights Act of 1965

While I was serving as Minority Counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, landmark Voting Rights legislation was making its way through Congress.  Its purpose was to implement the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which was adopted following the Civil War, and which states that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Remarkably, almost a century had passed since the 15th Amendment’s adoption in 1870, yet States of the Confederacy had, for almost a century, schemed to deny people of color the right to vote. Using strict voter-eligibility requirements, like literacy tests and poll taxes, the infamous Jim Crow laws were also accompanied by tactics of violence and intimidation, and thus they enabled whites in the South to keep blacks from voting.  In addition, many Southern states used the centennial census-based redistricting as an opportunity to draw congressional (as well as state legislative) district lines in a manner that would maximize white power.  All these tactics would be outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).

As I was from the North, it was at this time that I first understood racism, from witnessing its most subtle as well as its most ugly and overt forms. President Lyndon Johnson had pushed for and obtained the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 by breaking the Senate filibuster by Southern Senators. Without strong Republican support, the Civil Right Act of 1964 could not have passed, nor could the VRA. Every Republican I knew in the House of Representatives, in varying degrees – a group of over a hundred members—believed voting to be a basic human right, and believed, as well, that the consent of the governed is the core of our democracy.

Final passage of the VRA had 30 of 31 Republican Senators joining 49 Democrats in voting in favor, with the only GOP holdout being former South Carolina Democrat Strom Thurmond, a longtime open racist who started the movement of conservative Southern politicians to the Republican Party.  In the House, 111 of 131 Republicans joined 217 Democrats to pass the VRA.  The 20 GOP members who refused to vote for it were conservatives, most all of them from border states.

As Southerners moved into the GOP, opposition to the VRA grew.  To keep the VRA viable and alive, it was amended in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and, most recently, in 2006—with that last amendment giving the law further life for twenty-five years, or until 2031.  To make the story of this law very short, since the 1980s Republicans have increasingly tried to weaken it, and while it survived GOP attacks in 2006, I seriously doubt that the VRA would pass either the House or Senate today.  Republicans would kill it.

We should be thankful that the VRA passed earlier in our history, because it has been among the most effective tools in preventing and controlling the new GOP voter-suppression abuses.  If anyone thinks that the 2012 election cycle, and the reelection of America’s first black president, are not about race and our racist roots, which have surfaced, once again, during the first term of the Obama Administration, he or she needs to wake up and smell the rot that is created by frightened white people preventing people of color from voting.  It stinks.