2011-06-10 / Columns

Suppressing The Right To Vote

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v JOYCE S. ANDERSON Special to the Jewish Times

During the first fifty years of our history, only white male property owners were qualified to vote. That meant that only one in every thirty people was eligible to vote in the first elections after The Constitution was ratified in l787. We’ve come a long way since then, but the struggle between enfranchisement and suppression continues today – Twenty-First Century style.

After the Civil War, Amendment XV ( 1870) to The Constitution insured that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied ... on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” However, during Reconstruction and well into the 20th century, the freed slaves and their descendants were prevented from voting through state poll taxes, literacy tests, “grandfather clauses,” intimidation and violence. The second major Constitutional milestone was the culmination of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in 1920 when Amendment XIX was passed that stated, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Passage of The Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965, was a major achievement of the Civil Rights Movement. It was aimed at finally abolishing the barriers that had kept eligible voters from the polls, but states over the decades have found new ways to make that happen. The pattern from 2000 to 2011 has shown Republican governors and legislatures enacting laws that require official Photo-ID, and limit early voting days. Twelve states already require Photo-ID, with Wisconsin and Texas joining them in May. Governor Rick Scott of Florida which already has a Photo- ID law, signed a bill in mid-May to shorten the number of early voting days, a significant factor in the 2008 election when one third of all registered voters had voted before the official Election Day on November 4. There were long lines in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana where voters waited three, four and six hours at a time. Limiting early voting is an obvious attempt to suppress turnout.

What are the facts and fiction driving these patterns? Election analysts say that poor people, minorities, the elderly and students – who usually vote Democratic – are those who are less likely to have a valid driver’s license, the most prevalent form of Photo ID. Other forms such as passport or military issue are less frequently used. Republican lawmakers usually cite “voter fraud” and misrepresentation as their primary reason for the Photo ID laws. Yet, there have been almost no cases of proven voter fraud in any state. Instead exaggerated claims were made during the 2008 campaign by John McCain that the Acorn group that worked to improve voter registration was “on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history.” Acorn with 8,000 canvassers registered 1.3 million new voters. A few workers who turned in false names were flagged by supervisors and fired. Those were the facts behind the florid claims of the McCain campaign.

Why is the United States ranked 20th out of 21 established democracies around the globe in voter participation? In our last presidential election in 2008, 133.3 million voters went to the polls, 66 percent of the 201.5 million who were registered. In most democracies, over 80 percent of voters take part. In Canada, the turnout reaches 70-75 percent. One basic answer is that the U.S. is one of the few countries that requires citizens to register to vote. That may be a startling fact, but in most democracies, the government is pro-active in making sure all voters are on the electoral rolls. They have installed forms of automatic and permanent registration for citizens who reach voting age. Voila! When one turns eighteen, if that is the required age, one automatically is registered to vote. Those states that provide Voter Registration forms at Motor Vehicle Agencies are encouraging new drivers, young or old, to register.

State Representative Dennis Baxley, a Florida Republican, said “Over the last 20 years, we have seen Florida grow quite rapidly, and we have such a mix of populations. When we fail to protect every ballot, we disenfranchise people who participate legitimately.” In sharp contrast, State Senator Brad Hutto, Democrat of South Carolina argued, “There is not one documented case ( of fraud) that has been presented to us, and we had numerous hearings. Republicans have to have some reason to do this because it doesn’t sound good to say, ‘ We don’t want Latinos or African-Americans voting.’”

We are seeing a new spate of laws requiring Photo ID, and limiting early voting days and times. Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University and an expert in election law, said that the changes are likely to affect close elections. “Remarkably, most of the significant changes are going under the radar. A lot of voters are going to be surprised and dismayed when they go to their polling places and find that the rules have changed.”

Nikki Haley, the Republican governor of South Carolina, said, when she signed a Photo ID bill into law, “If you have to show a picture ID when you get on an airplane, you should show a picture ID when you vote.” The fallacy in her comparison is that flying is a choice, albeit one that is unaffordable for millions of Americans. Voting is a right guaranteed to all eligible United States citizens. States that tamper with that right in an attempt to suppress voting imperil the essence of our democratic system.

Joyce S. Anderson is the author of “ Courage in High Heels,” “Flaw in the Tapestry,” “ If Winter Comes,” “ The Mermaids Singing” and her new book, “The Critical Eye.” She can be reached at JSAWrite@aol.com.

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