found myself reading about the impact of voter suppression, i.e., the
efforts to inhibit voter registration and voter participation that have
been orchestrated by Republican-dominated state legislatures since
2009. Voter suppression actually has a long and ignominious
history in the USA, but the 1965 Voting Rights Act cramped such
efforts. The US Supreme Court’s neutering of the Voting Rights
Act, Shelby County v Holder, opened up myriad possibilities for
Republican shenanigans in the electoral arena.
have created immense obstacles to registration - reduced the
number of days for early voting, eliminated same-day registration
- all with the clear and unadulterated aim of sinking, if not
eliminating the Democratic electorate. What is striking is that,
not very far behind their bogus arguments regarding alleged voter
fraud, Republicans are close to admitting, or will outright admit, that
their aim is to get potential Democratic voters to remain home.
registration, instead of being encouraged and made more accessible, has
become exceedingly difficult. In the Commonwealth of Virginia,
for instance, registration forms have to be submitted within a certain
number of days after they have been filled out, otherwise those who
have conducted the registrations are penalized. Registration
forms can only be submitted to the clerk in the county of residence of
the registrant rather than being submitted elsewhere and channeled
appropriately. And, in this age of identity theft, registrants
are required to provide their full social security number. In
each state where voter suppression efforts are underway there are
voter suppression parallels the practices carried out when
Reconstruction was overthrown in 1877 and the ‘counterrevolution of
property,’ to use W.E.B. Dubois’s term, succeeded. In many
states, possession of property was established as an eligibility
requirement to cast a ballot. This counterrevolution resulted in the
disenfranchisement of African American voters and, with them, many poor
whites. This was precisely the objective of “property” when faced
with a populist rising against the gross inequalities of the Gilded Era
and the post-Reconstruction period.
voter suppression gained traction in the aftermath of the election of
Barack Obama as President. For the right-wing it was an “OMG”
moment that they sought to undermine by any means necessary. As
we are now aware, Senator Mitch McConnell united the Republicans around
a strategy of obstruction in Congress, aiming to derail any Obama
initiative. In the field, however, the objective was deeper and
more demonic. The aim was to shrink the electorate. Some
Republican ideologues went so far as to argue that the electorate
should be reduced and that there were certain people who should not be
able to vote because of ignorance or poverty. But the mass of
Republican legislators crafted a strategy that based itself on the
argument that there was voter fraud that had to be blocked through new
and challenging initiatives in voter registration and voting. The
arguments were as absurd as they were racist. There was no
evidence of anything approaching significant voter fraud, yet the
Republicans played upon racist myths and fears among many whites to
create an atmosphere where such measures were taken seriously.
have been repeated and significant efforts to block voter suppression
efforts. Litigation has been the main tactic and, in some cases,
there have been victories. But with every victory, the pox still
spreads as the Republicans prove, once again, to be relentless in their
pursuit of total power in the electoral arena. The question that
progressives face is one of what to do?
and leftists have often not taken matters of voter registration
particularly seriously, at least in the post-1965 Voting Rights Act
era. Voter registration and voting rights more generally were
relegated to the liberals and non-partisan do-gooders. While
there were leftists, such as Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, who
saw the importance of voting rights and registration, they tended to be
more the exception than the rule. Added to this problem, the
Democratic Party establishment regularly downplayed voter registration,
ignoring the importance of expanding the electorate. Only in
certain campaigns, e.g., during the Black-led electoral upsurge of the
1980s and the Obama campaign in 2008, was voter registration recognized
to be of strategic importance in shifting the balance of forces.
election years 2010, 2012 and 2014 various organizations, including but
not limited to labor unions, mobilized against selective voter
suppression efforts, particularly those conducted on Election Day.
Yet the waves of assaults by the Republicans have not ceased and,
with the crippling of the Voting Rights Act, the blood lust of the
Republicans has become enhanced. For these reasons, the approach of
progressives towards voter suppression needs to be reconsidered.
battle for voting rights in the 20th century was not one mainly handled
in the courts; it was handled in the ‘court’ of public opinion,
specifically the streets. The dramatization of such efforts in
the commercial media whether in the film Selma or in the recent HBO
film All the Way reminds us of how repressive election laws once were
in many parts of the USA (including but not limited to the South and
the Southwest). It was the work of activists, most especially
those associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and
the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that made a
tremendous difference. Their work included the development of
Citizenship Schools (done in conjunction with the Highlander Folk
School), registration efforts and outright protests. This was
exceedingly dangerous work making the courage of the activists that
much more exceptional.
1965, there was an assumption in much of the liberal and progressive
world that the Voting Rights Act was largely untouchable and that this
would be a fortification to restrain the advances of the barbarians of
the political Right. Unfortunately, the barbarians circumvented
the fortifications and are now in an all-out assault on democratic
rights. A reliance on court action will be insufficient.
brings us to an approach in the 2016 election year. Perhaps what
is needed is a “Freedom Summer + Fall,” i.e., a major, multi-pronged
mobilization that openly challenges voter suppression. Such an
effort would necessitate large numbers of volunteers and the
collaboration of organizations. Yet it is eminently do-able.
tremendous danger facing us is that of passively accepting the results
of voter suppression efforts. Longer-term the counterattack on
voter suppression will need to be at the level of state legislators.
Progressive candidacies will need to run on the platform of
overturning such efforts. Yet this will only happen when there is
the sense of a mass movement. To the extent to which voter
suppression is treated more like a nuisance that is addressed
exclusively by litigation, we will lose the battle for democracy and
the forces of authoritarianism will have their day in the sun.
- This effort would need to run from this very moment through Election Day (actually though the certification of the elections).
suppression statutes would need to become the subject of litigation on
a very broad scale. The undemocratic nature of them would need to
be demonstrated and court action would be one particular platform.
registration efforts would need to be enhanced with shuttles to get
communities to registration sites. Student volunteers would need
to be enlisted as part of a massive registration initiative.
local officials obstruct or block registration, there would need to be
protests. Such protests might take the form of well-publicized
sit-ins, or they might be massive stand-ins.
days of actions would be needed in states raising the issue of voter
suppression, particularly documenting the lack of evidence to justify
any such efforts.
voting would need to be encouraged. This is very important
particularly in those states where early voting has been eliminated or
would need to be a focus on obtaining appropriate documentation.
This might be among the most difficult challenges since there are
many people who do not have birth certificates; lost their birth
certificates; or for whatever reason are lacking the requisite
information. Create media events that highlight the plight of
those who do not have and are unable to obtain the appropriate
states that permit gun identification in order register to vote,
organized efforts would be needed to secure such identification.
demonstrations at the Republican National Committee would need to be
mounted to raise awareness of this assault on democracy.
would need to be brought on governors to issue executive orders
restoring voting rights to the formerly incarcerated in those states
that permanently eliminate them, e.g., the April 2016 executive order
by Virginia Governor McAuliffe.
This commentary originally appeared in AlterNet