Voter Suppression / Voting Rights Act

New HuffPost Column: Tankman, the GOP and Voting Rights

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Tankman, the GOP and Voting Rights

October 25, 2014

One of the most evocative images of the 20th century was the image of a single man standing in front of a column of tanks as part of the pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The picture resonates because, as Thomas Jefferson wrote two centuries earlier, we are all endowed with certain fundamental unalienable rights – Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In the United States, a half-century ago the Supreme Court explained that

No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.

Over the course of our history, we have endeavored to expand the right to vote to include all sexes, all races and all adults.

In March 1965, a voting rights march to Montgomery, Alabama was met with brutal force by Alabama state troopers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus bridge and the nation reacted in horror. President Johnson spoke before Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Act, declaring

There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain.

There is no moral issue. It is wrong–deadly wrong–to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.

There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 and reauthorized multiple times, most recently in 2004 without a single Senator voicing opposition.

Then two events occurred that shook the nation from its forward trajectory. First was the election of Barack Obama in 2008 that, rather than heralding the arrival of a post-racial America, became a call to arms for the dark knights of bigotry.

Then in 2012, an activist conservative majority of the Supreme Court gutted the Act’s enforcement mechanism that enabled the Justice Department to block discriminatory voting laws. Texas, which had been a repeat offender of the Act, reacted gleefully by immediately introducing and swiftly passing one of the most restrictive voter laws in the country that would prevent as many as 600,000 registered Texas voters (about 4.5% of all registered voters) from voting in person for lack of compliant identification. Republicans who once spoke in favor of voting rights have gone silent as twelve other states have enacted similarly strict voter ID laws.

After a nine-day trial, a Texas federal judge blocked implementation of the Texas law finding it was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose and would yield a prohibited discriminatory result. Richard Posner, a widely respected conservative judge, recently concluded a similar Wisconsin law had only one motivation and that was “to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burden.”

I often hear objections to these laws dismissed with statements such as “what’s so hard about getting an ID” or “both sides are playing politics, the Democrats want to make voting easier because it will help them.” Keep in mind that we are talking about a fundamental right. There is a big distinction between making the exercise of that right easier and attempting to deny it altogether.

Such an argument also ignores the long history of many of these states to block minority voters and the clear intent of the restrictions. There is ample evidence of Republicans stating on record that these restrictions are intended to discourage voting by “lazy blacks” as one North Carolina Republican stated.

Texas and other states have chosen these restrictions knowing it will prevent people from voting without any real evidence of voter fraud. Even worse, Texas allowed IDs for groups favored by Republicans, military and concealed weapons holders, but would not allow student IDs. Voters can obtain an “election identification certificate” from the Texas Department of Public Safety but more than 400,000 eligible voters would face round-trip travel times of three hours or more and incur fees obtaining birth certificates or other supporting documentation.

The attack is not limited to voter ID requirements but also includes cutting back early voting (especially on Sundays) since that has yielded higher minority votes and cutting back polling places in Democratic areas. I was in Florida during the vote in 2012 and saw voters wait in line until nearly midnight to vote.

When we see the photo of the “Tiananmen Tankman,” we all respond because we understand that what he sought – freedom – is a fundamental human right. How many think, “well wait a minute, how is he going to exercise that right?”

That is the state of the Republican Party today. Whether it is voting rights or allowing the largely African-American citizens of the District of Columbia representation in Congress – they are against it. When it comes to such fundamental unalienable rights, the party that freaks out if you don’t have a flag lapel pin on your jacket, apparently has the Confederate battle flag in its heart. While these tactics may yield victory, they undermine confidence in and threaten the legitimacy of our entire political system.