BOOKS/Roger Bybee

GOP Keeps Tradition of Voter Suppression

Keeping Down the Black Vote: Race and the Demoblization of American Voters by Frances Fox Piven, Lorraine C. Minnite and Margaret Groarke, with an introduction by Adam Cohen (New Press, 2009, 281 pp.)

The sordid reality revealed in Keeping Down the Black Vote was frankly admitted by a top official in the Bush II Justice Department: “As Joe Rich, who headed the Voting Section of the Justice Department during the tumultuous elections of 2000 and 2004 said, ‘The GOP agenda is to make it harder to vote. You purge voters. You don’t register voters. You pick the states where you go after Democrats.’”

In effect, as authors Frances Fox Piven, Lorraine Minnite, and Margaret Groarke document, the Justice Department — the agency most central to protecting voting rights — was perverted to suppress those very rights among African Americans. Republican-appointed US attorneys who refused to play along were purged by the Bush administration. Yet David Iglesias, the fired Republican US attorney general in New Mexico, said that he investigated over 100 claims of alleged voter fraud, but found no credible evidence in any of the cases.

National data is similar: “Federal records show that only 24 people were convicted or pleaded guilty to illegal voting between 2002 and 2005,” as Minnite pointed out in her The Politics of Fraud.

Clearly, the notion of “voter fraud” has been exposed as largely a hoax: “Five years after the Bush administration began a crackdown on voter fraud, the Justice Department turned out virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections, according to court interviews and interviews,” the New York Times reported (5/12/07). But Republicans continue to successfully conflate the relatively common occurrence of flawed voter registration with almost non-existence of fraudulent voting.

Meanwhile, the systematic suppression of African Americans’ right to vote has been a central part of American politics from the nation’s founding, right through to recent elections. In 2000, George W. Bush’s victory largely hinged on the fraudulent denial of voting rights to at least 55,000 blacks in Florida — incorrectly listed as felons ineligible to vote by a Republican computer data firm.

Again in the 2004 presidential election, results in the decisive state of Ohio were skewed by widespread efforts to suppress the black vote. For example, the supply of voting machines in and around the state’s largest city of Columbus was strategically polarized along racial lines to discourage voting by blacks.

Such strategies to undercut the mobilization of black voters have been central to American politics since the nation’s founding, and even the election of the first African-American president will not necessarily put a halt to voter suppression. Piven, Minnite and Groarke warn against the notion that Barack Obama’s victory shows that “suppression is no longer a problem in American politics. ... To the contrary,” they argue, “voter suppression is embedded in enduring features of the American electoral system.”

The awarding of disproportionate power to the wealthy, white, and male began with the nation’s birth: “This skewing of representation was indeed written into the American Constitution itself in the provisions that enlarged the representation in the Congress of southern slavocracy, including the infamous three-fifths rule, as well as with the allocation of Senate seats without regard to population.”

The post-Reconstruction voter-suppression methods, spearheaded by Southern Democrats eager to restore the unchallenged power of planter elites against the black vote (and those of poor whites at times) have become infamous. Reconstruction-era black officeholders had reflected a set of pro-worker, pro-farmer priorities regarded as inimical to the interests of the powerful. Thus, white elites eagerly seized the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877 as an opportunity to disenfranchise blacks via tactics ranging from the poll tax to the widespread application of terror.

Even after civil rights activism resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the success of the Southern strategy profoundly colored the strategy and appeals of both parties in the closing decades of the 20th century. The Democrats came to be dominated by the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council, which preached “free trade” anathema to workers, denounced social programs vital to poor inner-city residents, and stressed the importance of the Democrats’ ending their close identification with African Americans as a “special interest group.” Piven, Minnite and Groarke aptly describe this turn: “Republican campaigns first weakened the Democrats by drawing away erstwhile Democratic white voters with race-based appeals, and then weakened the Democrats again by engaging in multiple stratagems to suppress the black vote. Democrats scarcely resisted, because they worried about the racial fractures within the ranks of their own constituency, and also because they worried that black policy demands would alienate business supporters. ... They responded weakly and ambivalently.”

The Republican strategy has been anything but “ambivalent.” For the past six decades the party has engaged in broad and extensive strategies to suppress the African American vote. The first signs of this appeared in 1954 with GOP “voter caging” operations. In the early 1960s, a young and ambitious Republican lawyer named William H. Rehnquist headed up an aggressive “Operation Eagle Eye” operation in Phoenix, Ariz., to intimidate black and Latino voters.

Despite the centrality of voter-suppression charges during the 36-day drama in Florida in 2000 when the presidency hung in the balance, there was little mainstream media mention of Rehnquist’s relevant history. Rehnquist, as might have been expected, voted with the 5-4 majority to declare George Bush the winner.

Observing the overall low turnout among voters in the US compared with other democracies and, in particular, its class-skewed nature where the affluent vote in much higher numbers than workers and the poor, Piven and her partner, the late Richard Cloward, pioneered a strategy for mass voter registration. Outlined in their book Why Americans Don’t Vote, it was based on the theory that non-voters could be transformed into a force for economic justice if they could be persuaded to register and vote. The basic concept: when people applied for a driver’s license or food stamps or any other form of assistance, they would be given a form to register to vote on the spot. This idea finally came to fruition with the passage of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) in 1993, signed into law by President Clinton, but with only 11% of House GOP members voting in favor of the bill.

Once enacted, the law encountered a host of legal challenges from 11 conservative governors (10 Republican) threatened by the enlargement of the electorate. Though their legal complaints were defeated, conservatives have enthusiastically used NVRA provisions for purging voters while discouraging public agencies from registering new voters. The Department of Justice has even concentrated its resources on suing states for failing to purge voters more aggressively, while ignoring state agencies’ unwillingness to implement the primary intent of the law.

As a result of the failure to enforce the NVRA’s intent, citizen groups had to revitalize their efforts to register voters. They managed to sign up about 12 million voters around the time of the 2004 election. But relying on volunteer or low-paid workers to register voters greatly adds to the potential for errors and duplication in the process. As the authors stress, “This is one of the consequences of a personal registration system that ‘outsources’ voter registration work to the public at large rather than placing the burden of registration on government, as is done in many of the European democracies.”

Any errors committed by voter-registration drives like those led by ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, provide opportunities for conservatives to make spectacular charges of voter fraud and call for measures to ensure “ballot integrity.” Thus, in the Oct. 15 presidential debate, John McCain inflated tiny ACORN into a giant redwood about to topple American democracy. ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy,” McCain thundered.

Despite the repeated efforts at voter suppression by the Republicans — made widely-known in disclosures about the Karl Rove-orchestrated firings of US attorneys—Democratic majorities in both houses were quick to vote to de-fund ACORN. The principal basis: an edited videotape prepared by a young white conservative allegedly getting illegal advice from ACORN staffers.

Keeping Down the Black Vote leads one to conclude that America’s democratic machinery has actually regressed since the Florida debacle of 2000. Unaccountable electronic voting systems have proliferated and are often tied to highly partisan Republican-dominated corporations. No fewer than half the states have enacted “voter ID” laws, despite clear evidence that it would discourage voting, especially by people of color, without preventing a scintilla of fraud. However, a Wisconsin study showed that requiring a state-issued ID like a driver’s license would have a highly disparate impact on African Americans, Latinos and the elderly: “Among black males between ages 18 and 24, 78% lacked a driver’s license.”

Until the US adopts a set of fundamental reforms to establish public, transparent control over the electoral, the US will face ongoing attempts at voter suppression targeted especially at African Americans.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications. A version of this article appeared in May 2009 Z Magazine.

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2009

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