As the nation enters another presidential election year, it seems that the push to get people of color registered is being met with a fight to keep the Black, other minority and youth vote from being strong.
New voting laws are being enacted across several states that require government IDs, eliminate early voting and ban registration drives in order to block qualified voters from getting to the polls. These laws restrict access to the franchise in ways that have not been so aggressively pushed in decades-in some cases, in nearly a century.
History is clearly trying to repeat itself, at least in the hopes of those who want our nation to relive some of its darkest moments-the time after the Civil War when laws like grandfather clauses, literacy tests and poll taxes aimed to keep Blacks away from the polls. Black voting rights activists have not seen such a clear and brazen assault on their work since the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement led to the passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964, outlawing poll taxes.
But with the rise of Republicans in legislatures and governorships across the nation in 2010, these emboldened politicians have been looking for ways to suppress the Black vote. Republican politicians have been looking for ways to turn back the clock since the 2008 presidential election that brought to office the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama-an election that saw the highest turnout of young Black voters, including Black women, yet.
“It doesn’t take much, with how close elections have been both at the national, state and local levels, to suppress the vote and for the opposition to win,” said political consultant Bill Lynch. “This comes right out of the Republican playbook. Attorney General Eric Holder has to enforce the Voting Rights Act and let these states know that what they are doing is unconstitutional.”
Last month, Holder spoke about the voting laws and how he plans to enforce the “law of the land,” which was passed nearly 50 years ago by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“In 1965, when President Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act into law, he proclaimed, ‘The right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless.’ Today, as attorney general, I have the privilege and the solemn duty of enforcing this law. We will examine the facts and we will apply the law,” Holder said.
Republicans have good reason to fear the Black vote. In 2008, states including Ohio, South Carolina, Missouri, Nevada, Maryland and Mississippi saw a 70 percent Black voter turnout.
That election also saw other voters who had previously stayed away from the polls, including Hispanics and the young, become engaged in the process as never before. If the Republican lawmakers and governors succeed in their efforts to suppress the vote, 5 million legitimate voters could be kept from the polls, according to voting rights advocates.
So far, five state legislatures have enacted laws that would require voters to show government ID when they go to cast their ballot: Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. These states have an estimated 3.2 million people who don’t have state-issued photo IDs.
Another 240,000 voters are affected by proof of citizenship laws in Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee. Florida and Texas have banned voter registration drives, impacting 202,000 potential voters, and in Maine, 60,000 voters will be affected because of the ban on Election Day voter registration.
The elimination of early voting in Florida, Georgia and Ohio is slashing 1 million to 2 million potential voters, and 100,000 citizens in Florida and Iowa won’t be able to vote because of laws that make it difficult for people with past felony convictions to get their voting rights restored.
While none of these laws are in effect in New York State, they do set the national tone, which, that if allowed to go unabated, could have implications here. New York Rep. Yvette Clark and members of the Congressional Black Caucus are doing their part to address the issue and have formed a task force.
“It is a battle,” she said. We are in a Northern, consistently Democratic state, so not as many New Yorkers will be threatened. At this stage, it’s a legal challenge. These states have passed legislation. I think that we all have to be focused on what’s taking place in this country: the movement to disenfranchise the Black vote.
“If we don’t fight back against what is going on in the South, what will it mean for the political future of our communities in the North?” Clark asked. “Nothing is written in stone that New York State will always be governed by Democratic rule.”
The nation’s civil rights leaders say they are ready for the fight and will get the word out. History has proven that one of the first things to go when people attempt to control a certain population is the right to vote, followed by Jim Crow-style laws that further deteriorate democracy.
“Whenever our democracy expands, suddenly there is a sense to contract access to it,” NAACP President Benjamin Jealous told the AmNews. “Our country’s history tends to progress two steps forward, one step back.
“The good news is that we have made gains and we will continue to make gains, but the reality is that we have to fight to make these gains,” he said. “No matter what the barrier is, we have to be prepared to clear it.”
The NAACP is one civil rights group at the forefront of the fight against new voting laws. With their “Stand 4 Freedom” campaign, the organization held a major protest rally in the city in December. Jealous is not only asking people to get the word out about the new laws but also to be educated about them.
“Have a plan for voting. People have to say to themselves, ‘I’m going to vote, no matter what.’ Have a plan, and in that plan you need to be registered to vote and know the laws in your state,” Jealous said.