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 		 [ As results from the recent midterm elections show and the book
under review chronicles, restrictive voter identification laws,
registration requirements, felon disenfranchisement and voter purges
still deny millions access to the ballot box.] [https://portside.org/]


 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 FIGHTING TO VOTE   [https://portside.org/node/18580] 

 

 Michael Tomasky 
 November 8, 2018
The New York Review of Books
[https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/11/08/fighting-to-vote/] 

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 _ As results from the recent midterm elections show and the book
under review chronicles, restrictive voter identification laws,
registration requirements, felon disenfranchisement and voter purges
still deny millions access to the ballot box. _ 

 The crowd at a get-out-the-vote rally during a speech by Michelle
Obama, Miami, Florida, September 2018, credit: Chuck Kennedy/When We
All Vote // The New York Review of Books 

 

If you grew up, as I did, in the 1960s and 1970s, watching (albeit
through a child’s eyes) the civil rights movement notch victory
after victory, you could be forgiven for thinking at the time that
that happy condition was normal. By high school, in the late 1970s, I
began reading some history and learning about the struggles people
endured to win the right to vote in this country. I thought then that
these battles were over and done and won—that a new consensus had
been achieved.

This state of affairs extended into the 1980s, and my view was
reinforced by the observation that even conservative Republicans
seemed to share in that consensus. Ronald Reagan backed the Voting
Rights Act, signing into law in 1982 significant amendments to the
original 1965 act. The most notable change made it easier for
plaintiffs to sue states and localities under the act’s Section 2,
which affirmed that they did not need to prove discriminatory intent
in voting laws, just discriminatory effect. Jesse Helms mounted a
lonesome filibuster in the Senate, but even he stood down. The bill
passed both houses of Congress by large bipartisan margins. “As
I’ve said before, the right to vote is the crown jewel of American
liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished,” Reagan
remarked when he signed it.

But in retrospect, that moment, in June 1982, may have represented a
zenith for voting rights in the United States. Even as Reagan was
signing those amendments into law, others on the political right were
devising ways to reverse this progress. The standard method was to
challenge the Voting Rights Act in court, which produced mixed results
at first but in recent years has met with great success, from the
Republican Party’s point of view: in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled
5–4, in _Shelby County_ v_. Holder_, that certain burdens imposed
by the act on states and localities with a history of discrimination
in voting laws no longer reflected reality—that such discrimination
was no longer a problem in the United States. That assessment was a
bit optimistic. One measure: in heavily black and Latino counties
covered by the Voting Rights Act, there were 868 fewer polling places
in 2016 than in 2012, according to a report by the Leadership
Conference for Civil Rights. (Before _Shelby_, covered counties had
to get Justice Department approval before they could make such moves.)

In other words, from the moment that black Americans finally won
voting rights equal to those of white Americans, a significant number
of white Americans started fighting to undo them. My teenage self was
quite naive. Forty years later, it appears that what I thought was the
new normal was in fact an aberration, a quick little burst of sunshine
punctuating an otherwise bleak sky. There is no new consensus and
never has been. There is just the old racist consensus, which was
successfully pricked for a couple of decades but reasserted its
dominance with the help of the many millions of dollars pumped into
right-wing foundations and think tanks and activist groups like the
Federalist Society.

The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the Present
[http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674972360]
By Allan J. Lichtman
Harvard University Press; 336 pages 
Hardcover:  $27.95
September 10, 2018
ISBN 9780674972360

Most of this activity emanated from the places you might
expect—Texas, notably, and the deep South (Shelby County is in
Alabama). There were and are some northern states involved, when their
governors’ mansions and state legislatures have been taken over by
Republicans. Wisconsin under its current governor, Scott Walker, is
the most conspicuous northern state to attempt various voter
suppression efforts, including one of the country’s strictest
voter ID laws, a newer weapon in the arsenal. A study by two
University of Wisconsin political scientists found that the
state’s ID law kept perhaps 17,000 citizens away from the polls in
2016, in a state Donald Trump won by around 23,000 votes.[1] (Walker
is seeking a third term this year, and as of late September was
trailing his Democratic challenger, Tony Evers, by four or five
points.)

But the brutal ground zero of the voting wars, their Stalingrad, is
North Carolina. This might come as a surprise, because North Carolina,
though southern, is no Mississippi: it has lively cities and a diverse
population and great universities and funky, artsy Asheville. It is
surely among the most cosmopolitan of the states of the former
Confederacy.

But it is precisely for these reasons that the state is contested.
Unlike in South Carolina, Democrats can win there sometimes. Barack
Obama won there in 2008. His narrow victory over John McCain was the
first for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in
1976 (Bill Clinton never won the state), and only the third in the
previous twelve elections. It demonstrated how a Democrat can win in
North Carolina: generate a high turnout among African-Americans,
somewhere close to 25 percent of the overall vote, and win almost all
of it; then take at least one third of the white vote. Obama’s win
was narrow—less than a percentage point—but it showed that the
state was suddenly in play, no longer reliably red. Also around that
time, thanks in part to George W. Bush’s unpopularity, Democrats
improbably controlled as many as eight of its thirteen congressional
seats. Republicans wanted to shut this down.

In the following few elections, after the rise of the Tea Party, the
Republicans roared back to power in North Carolina. In 2010 both
houses of the state legislature flipped from Democratic to Republican
control, a result in part of the Republican Project Redmap.[2] Once
they had those majorities, the Republicans drew new congressional
districts for the 2012 elections to give them ten of the thirteen
seats, and ten is the number they now hold. Also in 2012, the
incumbent Democratic governor chose not to run for reelection, and Pat
McCrory, an extremely conservative Republican, won that office. Obama
lost the state to Mitt Romney that year by two percentage points,
despite having brought the Democratic convention to Charlotte that
summer. Then in 2014, Democratic senator Kay Hagan lost to Republican
Thom Tillis, lately observed speaking up in defense of Brett
Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court as a member of the
Senate Judiciary Committee.

With their new power, North Carolina’s Republicans began
implementing a radical agenda, one that stunned many observers. They
made large cuts to social programs and public education. They tried to
pass a bill ostensibly combating Sharia law, to which they attached
several abortion restrictions; when that bill failed, they attached
many of the same restrictions to a motorcycle safety bill. They passed
the infamous “bathroom bill” calling for the policing of public
restrooms to prevent transgendered people from using the facility of
their choice, which brought recriminations from even the NCAAand the
National Basketball Association. (Tillis, incidentally, was the state
house Speaker who helped push all this through.) It was in early 2013
that the state’s progressives started their “Moral Mondays”
sit-ins at the capitol in Raleigh, led by the charismatic Reverend
William Barber II.

The biggest issue of all, though, was voting rights. North
Carolina’s Voter Information and Verification Act (VIVA) of
2013—which the state’s Republicans felt emboldened to pass, it
should be noted, after the Supreme Court’s _Shelby_ decision—was
a sprawling piece of legislation that included some noncontroversial
modernizations. But it also limited early voting, excluded the use of
certain forms of identification, and took a few other steps clearly
aimed at reducing black turnout as much as possible. Republicans
denied this, of course, insisting that they were trying to fight voter
fraud. But voter fraud, as numerous studies have shown, is wildly
inflated by Republicans and in fact virtually nonexistent. A
2014 _Washington Post_ study turned up only thirty-one credible
instances of a voter intentionally impersonating another voter—out
of one billion votes cast.[3]

Allan J. Lichtman discusses VIVA at length in a chapter late
in _The Embattled Vote in America_, while his earlier chapters
provide a rich historical background to the law. Lichtman is a
historian at American University who has been a long-time commentator
on current affairs. He turned heads in 2016 for being the only
prominent election prognosticator to predict that Donald Trump would
win, based on a formula he’d used since 1984 built around the
popularity of the incumbent party. The next year, he published a book
predicting Trump’s impeachment.[4]

I would imagine that to most suburban white people who drive to their
jobs and thus have valid driver’s licenses, the demand that voters
get a license or some other kind of ID doesn’t sound especially
onerous. But we often forget that one needs documents to get
documents. To secure a driver’s license in most states, a person
needs to show a birth certificate and proof of residence, and perhaps
a Social Security card. In the case of people who move
frequently—young people, college students, poor people, all of whom
lean Democratic—the addresses on these cards may not match. Older
African-Americans born under Jim Crow may not even have been issued
birth certificates.[5]

Lichtman draws attention, as some journalists have, to the case of
Rosanell Eaton, who grew up in North Carolina in the Jim Crow era and
joined an NAACP lawsuit against VIVA as a plaintiff. In a book
that is mostly a straightforward history-from-above narrative,
Eaton’s story provides one of the more gripping passages:

In 1942, Eaton rode for two miles on a mule-drawn wagon to register to
vote at the Franklin County courthouse. Three white male officials
confronted her. They ordered her to stand up straight, keep her arms
at her side, and recite from memory the preamble to the Constitution.
She did so word for word and then passed a written literacy test,
becoming one of the few African Americans of her era to vote in North
Carolina.

Seven decades later, Lichtman writes, “Eaton had a much harder time
qualifying to vote under North Carolina’s new law.” She had a
driver’s license, but the names on her license and her
voter-registration card did not match exactly. She made eleven trips
to the Department of Motor Vehicles, two different Social Security
offices, and three banks before everything was rectified. “I was
hoping I would be dead before I’d have to see all this again,” she
said.

In 2016 the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down VIVA. The
court’s ruling charged that the state’s Republicans “target[ed]
African Americans with almost surgical precision.” So that effort at
voter suppression is off the books. The district lines that
Republicans drew in 2011, meanwhile, the ones that gave the GOP an
overwhelming majority in the state’s congressional delegation, are
still in effect and are the subject of court battles. The Supreme
Court may hear a case challenging them next spring.

The great value of Lichtman’s book is the way it puts today’s
right-wing voter suppression efforts in their historical setting. He
identifies the current push as the third crackdown on African-American
voting rights in our history.

The first came in the early days of the republic. In some state
constitutions that dated to independence, Lichtman notes, some blacks,
usually those few who met certain property qualifications, were
granted suffrage. But protests were often immediate when they did
vote. In 1803 in Wallingford, Connecticut, losers of a local election
complained that “a Negro fellow by the name of Toby” had been
allowed to vote for the winners. This affront was compounded, they
alleged, because this “Black night walker” had once attempted to
rape a white woman. By 1814, the state legally limited the franchise
to whites.

And so it went. In Maryland, the original state constitution of 1776
actually allowed property-owning African-Americans to vote. Then their
numbers increased, and by 1802, the legislature banned them from
voting. New Jersey followed a similar arc, allowing blacks to vote
under its original constitution but ending the practice in 1807. In
New York, some blacks could vote under the 1777 constitution. A
rewriting in 1821 stopped just short of explicitly limiting the vote
to whites, but it imposed a property qualification “which we know
they cannot comply with,” as one delegate put it.

A civil rights activist teaching a woman to write in order to be able
to vote, Petersburg, Virginia, 1960
credit:  Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos  //  The New York Review of Books
The second crackdown came after Reconstruction, which ended in 1877.
During Reconstruction, blacks in the South gained full citizenship
rights, which were enforced by occupying Union soldiers. But even
then, the national will to safeguard those rights was scant. In 1875
President Ulysses Grant and some of his fellow Republicans—the good
guys, at that time—sought to pass a bill to “redeem” the words
of the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted the franchise to persons
previously held as slaves, by legislating meaningful enforcement
provisions. Joseph Gurney Cannon, a leading Republican congressman of
the day for whom one of the three House office buildings along
Independence Avenue is named, argued, “Will we protect these men
[African-Americans] or will we leave them to be overborne and
butchered?” The House passed the bill, but the Senate didn’t act
on it. Even in Lincoln’s party, opinion was divided on how far they
were willing to go to protect and defend black people’s rights.

Once the Union troops left the South, African-Americans’ rights were
stripped by means both legal and violent. The violent means—the rise
of the Ku Klux Klan—everyone knows about. Somewhat less well known
are the legal efforts—the state constitutions passed by southern
states that explicitly enshrined white supremacism in law. “There is
no use to equivocate or lie about the matter,” said the
Mississippian James Vardaman of that state’s 1890 constitution.
“Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no
other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics.”[6]

That was led by the Democratic Party, which was then a white
supremacist party (in the South; in the North, it was the party of
immigrants). But, as Lichtman writes, it’s not as if the Republicans
fought for blacks. After Reconstruction, they ended their efforts in
the South, leaving the region and its people to the Jim Crow
Democrats. Those African-Americans who could vote were loyal
Republican voters for obvious reasons, but over the course of the
early twentieth century that loyalty waned. From 1896 to 1932,
Republicans controlled the White House for all but eight years, and
Congress for much of that time; yet, writes Lichtman, they could never
rouse themselves to pass an anti-lynching law. The National Colored
Republican Conference complained in 1924, “In the party’s
willingness to be fair, many have no confidence, and a change is
imperative.” Four years later, when Herbert Hoover proved more
tone-deaf than usual on race and civil rights, African-Americans were
already prepared to bolt the party for Franklin Roosevelt—belying
the idea that the Depression prompted them to switch sides.

As awfully as blacks were treated, the white men who ran the country
took their plight more seriously than they did that of women. The
Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the right to citizenship for
blacks, also said, in Section 2, “But when the right to vote at any
election…is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such
State…” It was the first insertion of the word “male” into the
Constitution, as Lichtman notes, and it happened over the clear
objections of the great women’s leaders of the day. Susan B. Anthony
demanded that Republicans “hold the party to a logical consistency
that shall give every responsible citizen in every State equal right
to the ballot,” but even the most progressive-minded male leaders
argued that they could pass legislation enforcing voting rights for
blacks, but if they included women’s suffrage, it would fail. “I
know that the time will come,” said Ohio senator Benjamin Wade, one
of the most radical of the Radical Republicans. “Not today, but the
time is approaching.” Women would hear this for another six decades,
and they continue to hear it in different forms today.

Still, at least when women finally did win suffrage, the right was
largely recognized. This was never so for African-Americans. Nothing
that Republicans are doing today is new. In the early days of the
republic, Lichtman writes, members of Alexander Hamilton’s
Federalist Party raised regular allegations of voter fraud and sought
to require men to bring to the polls proof of their property
qualifications. As for “ballot security,” as the Republicans
sometimes call their efforts, the GOP rolled out “Operation Eagle
Eye” back in 1964, the first modern election in which the party
sought to appeal to the racist vote. Eagle Eye targeted heavily
Democratic, mostly minority precincts in thirty-six cities. It was
based on a program that had already been tried in Arizona, which
involved voter intimidation, the circulation of handbills warning that
if you had outstanding parking tickets you couldn’t vote—the usual
tricks. It didn’t work, but no one was ever known to have been
caught and prosecuted or punished for it in any way. One of the
participants in the Arizona program, William Rehnquist, was
“punished” a quarter-century later by being confirmed as the
sixteenth chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Today, as we approach November and a highly anticipated anti-Trump
wave at the polls, Republicans in jurisdictions they control are
getting more and more brazen in their voter-suppression efforts. The
most darkly comic attempt emanated from Georgia, where election
officials sought to close seven out of nine polling places in one
predominantly African-American county because they weren’t compliant
with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Citizens protested. County
officials at first insisted that they absolutely had only the
county’s disabled voters in mind, until a national outcry forced
them to reverse course.[7]

In North Carolina, the stakes are unusually high. The state
legislature, Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice told me,
will be elected according to new district maps, the old ones having
been tossed out by a court because of racial gerrymandering. It’s
unlikely the Democrats can win enough seats to capture a majority, but
they can win enough to end the Republican supermajority, which would
mean the legislature could no longer override vetoes by Democratic
governor Roy Cooper.

The congressional elections, however, will still be based on the
districts the Republicans drew seven years ago. On August 27, a panel
of three federal judges in the state found those districts to be
unconstitutional due to partisan gerrymandering, but it also said that
it was too late to draw new ones by November 6. Nevertheless,
depending on the strength of Democratic turnout, the party could gain
as many as three House seats there.

Voting-rights advocates had hoped that the Supreme Court would hear
the challenge to the North Carolina districting while Anthony Kennedy
was still on the bench, which could have given them a fighting chance
at a decision that would ban partisan gerrymandering. A victory in
that case would have had thunderous ramifications. The Court may still
hear it, but with Kavanaugh now filling Kennedy’s seat, the already
slim hope of success would seem to be nonexistent.

Beyond 2018, Democrats, liberal nonprofits, foundations, and donors
simply must be more focused on these issues and put more resources
into fighting Republicans. There should be a broad push, for example,
for amending the Constitution to include a basic federal right to
vote. Some people are surprised to learn this isn’t in the
Constitution, but it is the sort of thing the founders left to the
states. A federal right would make all these state voter-suppression
laws eminently more challengeable.

Right now, however, the general posture of these groups is that they
don’t want to tinker with the Constitution; doing that is
“their” issue (i.e., the right’s). This is astonishingly
shortsighted. One day, given the way polarization is testing the
limits of our system of checks and balances, a public consensus might
well emerge acknowledging that some changes to the Constitution are
needed. The right has its list; it is topped by a federal balanced
budget amendment, which would decimate domestic spending or
entitlements or both. Is the left just to remain silent when the time
for that debate arrives?

If the current third wave of voter-suppression techniques is halted,
history suggests that there will be a fourth and a fifth. Today’s
Republican Party is not simply trying to win elections. It is
simultaneously trying to rewrite the rules—gerrymandering and voter
suppression are crucial to this effort—so that it never loses a
federal election again. Too many liberals can’t bring themselves to
acknowledge this. I hope that on this issue, as has happened on some
others, the age of Trump will finally cause the scales to fall from
their eyes.

_—October 11, 2018_

1. See Michael Wines, “Wisconsin Strict ID Law Discouraged Voters,
Study Finds,” _The New York Times_, September 25, 2017.

2. See my “Ratfucked Again
[https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/06/07/on-gerrymandering/],” _The
New York Review_, June 7, 2018.

3. See Justin Levitt, “A Comprehensive Investigation of Voter
Impersonation Finds 31 Credible Incidents Out of One Billion Votes
Cast,” _The Washington Post_, August 6, 2014.

4. _The Case for Impeachment_ (William Morrow/Dey Street, 2017);
reviewed in these pages by Noah Feldman and Jacob Weisberg, September
28, 2017.

5. For a discussion of these complications, see Barrett Holmes Pitner,
“The Best Way to Fight Voter-ID Laws? Give Voters IDs!,” _The
Daily Beast_, August 28, 2018.

6. See Neil R. McMillen, _Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the
Age of Jim Crow_ (University of Illinois Press, 1989), p. 43.

7. See Dana Milbank, “The GOP Turns to Toilets to Suppress More
Black Voters,” _The Washington Post_, August 21, 2018. 

_Book author Allan J. Lichtman is Distinguished Professor of History
at American University and the author White Protestant Nation: The
Rise of the American Conservative Movement, which was a finalist for
the National Book Critics Circle Award; FDR and the Jews (with Richard
Breitman); and The Case for Impeachment. He is a frequent media source
for his views on voting and elections and has testified in more than
ninety voting rights cases,_

_[Essayist Michael Tomasky  is a Special Correspondent for The Daily
Beast, the Editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, and a contributing
opinion writer for The New York Times. You can follow Tomasky on
Twitter: @mtomasky.]_

_For subscription information to The New York Review of Books or
purchases from its voluminous product list , go HERE
[https://shop.nybooks.com/search?type=product&q=subscriptions]. _

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