North Carolina and the Evolution of Voter Suppression

Voting rights are human rights

February 1, 2016, first posted on Beacon Broadside

Since the Supreme Court in 2013 effectively lifted preclearance requirements for states and counties with a history of race discrimination, states have passed a raft of new voter ID laws and taken other steps which they claim will prevent voter fraud. The challenge to North Carolina’s voter Identification law underway in federal court may be ground zero for this issue.

North Carolina’s identification law requires voters to produce one of six accepted credentials including a driver’s license or passport. Facing immediate criticism from civil rights advocates, the legislature added language permitting the submission of a provisional ballot if the prospective voter submitted a “reasonable impediment declaration” explaining why they lacked identification.

Civil rights advocates consider the law as just another effort to suppress the black vote. One of the plaintiffs is a ninety-four year old woman who had to travel back and forth to distant government offices to get the right documentation because her driver’s license and voter registration card did not match.

The in-person fraud where someone falsely pretends to be a valid voter, cited as a rationale for the new more stringent ID laws, rarely happens. Instead, a more pernicious form of fraud consisting of vote buying and selling is prevalent.

Five Dollars and a Pork Chop SandwichCampaigns get the needy to turn out for them even when they know the candidates don’t do anything for them. As an old lady in Louisiana said, “They don’t do anything for me, they never do what they promise,” but at least they give her a little something—five dollars and a porkchop sandwich. When she and other poor people are induced to cast votes for people who they would otherwise not vote for and who don’t give them anything beyond this “chump change,” it is just another form of voter suppression. Voter fraud indeed exists across the country in state and local elections, but it is through campaigns misusing absentee ballots and buying votes, sometimes with the collusion of voting officials.

Vote buying and selling happens all over the country and is done by operatives for state and local candidates in Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia or rural counties in West Virginia or in the parishes of Louisiana and the counties in Mississippi and Texas. Walk-around money and street money is used to prey on old people in nursing homes and the poor wherever they are. All done in the effort to increase turnout of each candidate’s voters.

The outcome of the battle over voter suppression affects not just presidential elections but state and local contests where matters directly affecting daily life, such as roads and schools and clean water, are decided. Court decisions will come in due course, hopefully striking down these voter ID laws and other restrictive measures. But the election calendar will not wait. In some states a vote in the primary is more crucial than in the general election along with votes in state and local elections not just the presidential contest.

We should not place our reliance on the courts. While the litigation fight goes on, civil rights organizations, churches, fraternities and sororities, and other local groups could make sure non-registered voters, who don’t have the resources, possess whatever documentation is required and transport them to the registrar’s offices to obtain IDs. This can be done while working on ending voter suppression. After all, individuals need photo IDs not only to vote but often to even enter buildings where government or medical services or provided. The groups undertaking this work will need outside financial contributions given the intense poverty among local residents without IDs.

Combined with candidates and issues that give the unregistered something to vote for a “Let’s get ID’d, Let’s get registered” campaign may not only inspire more registration but more actual turnout on election Day without vote buying and other fraudulent tactics. More turnout just might lead to positive political change.






Rosa Parks Poll

The time when you need to do something is when no one else is willing to do it, when people are saying it can’t be done.

If Rosa Parks had taken a poll before she sat down in the bus in Montgomery, she’d still be standing.

Racial tensions are a major problem in the states in which the church burnings took place.

Stereotyped by the media, ignored by politicians, young poor black males face almost insurmountable obstacles to fulfilling the American dream.

Everywhere, African-Americans are stopped far out of their proportion in any of the communities policed.

When you have police officers who abuse citizens, you erode public confidence in law enforcement. That makes the job of good police officers unsafe.

Civil rights opened the windows. When you open the windows, it does not mean that everybody will get through. We must create our own opportunities


Selma, Black Leadership and Presidential Allies

Ana DuVernay’s movie Selma tells the inspirational story of a coalition of activists, young and old, students and ministers, local and national, radicals and “respectables” who, despite their differences came together three times in the spring of 1965 to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and confront state police intent on enforcing racial segregation. Viewers and reviewers want to know more about all the people surrounding Martin Luther King: King’s right hand in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Ralph Abernathy and SNCC’s John Lewis. They want to know about the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson by a state trooper as he was defending his mother from a police beating.  People want to know about women in the movement, about Selma community organizer Amelia Boynton and the young girls who also took part.

So the recent flap over the role of President Lyndon Baines Johnson during this pivotal point of the civil rights movement distracts us not only from the historical truth, but does the further disservice by (once again) trying to make white people the center of the black freedom struggle. Joseph A. Califano, Jr. goes so far as to suggest that LBJ should be remembered as the “white savior” who suggested the march, rather than as a president who tried to stop it as the film portrays. (That dubious honor goes to John F. Kennedy who tried to shut down the 1963 March on Washington.)

President Johnson was neither the hero nor the villain; to characterize him as one or the other perpetuates the racial divisions that King and other anti-racists sought to overcome. The (white) historians interviewed about Johnson’s legacy failed to understand this as well. Johnson had more than three decades of decades of political experience and knew how pressure politics worked. He also supported the movement’s goals of first class citizenship and wanted Congress to pass a voting rights act. And this is where DuVernay misses an opportunity to teach audiences about the political value of protest and the power of the Oval Office.

Selma is of course a film, not a documentary. If viewers want the documentary, Henry Hampton’s magisterial 14-hour series Eyes on the Prize (1987) remains the definitive video; episode six, Bridge to Freedom examines the Selma march. But Hollywood likes to pair its heroes with villains, and depicting LBJ as the baddie was DuVernay’s narrative choice.

Yet in a time of dysfunctional politics and a pervasive belief that government can do nothing good, there were lessons about political strategy and the usefulness of allies that would have been phenomenal. Audiences could have seen a President who is pushed by protesters to use the national mood after Kennedy’s assassination to deploy his legislative moxie and the power of the office to do the morally right thing. We would not have a distracting debate over LBJ as a white savior, but a message about the critical value of political protest in pushing a progressive agenda through Congress.

Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required three separate but strategically-related actions. First, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some of the practices used to deny suffrage were unconstitutional. In addition, the 24th Amendment, abolishing poll taxes, was finally ratified in 1964. Together, these created a legal framework for expanding and protecting citizens’ right to vote.

Rights on paper are not rights in practice. At the center of the struggle for voting rights were the African Americans and white supporters who fought, marched, went to jail and died. To be sure, segregationists’ brutal repression of the movement – and national television coverage of Bloody Sunday – resulted in broad public support for the protestors and their cause.

Pressure mounted on Congress to pass a federal voting rights bill. It was here that LBJ’s work as a movement ally was vital to winning bipartisan support. Johnson knew how to persuade reluctant and defiant Congressmen – many of them fellow Southern Democrats – and more critically, which members were vulnerable to White House pressure. As the long-time Senate majority leader, Johnson understood the legislative minefields he had traversed earlier when Congress passed the tepid Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first since Reconstruction. Johnson was up against die-hard segregationists, most of whom had signed the Southern Manifesto in 1956. Even so, at the signing ceremony for the Voting Rights Act in August 1965, President Johnson knew he was consigning the Democratic Party to years of defeat from white Southern voters.

History is complicated when told in full. With its many leaders and varied activists, Selma tells a magnificent story and the stories of African Americans’ struggle aren’t told often enough. The tale of LBJ and Congress is an inside-the-beltway anecdote and probably would have confused the movie’s narrative. But it would have given us an example of a President who was made to do the right thing.