Voter Repression Is a Serious Problem: It Is Time for a New Freedom Summer
I found myself reading about the impact of voter suppression, i.e., the efforts to inhibit voter registration and voter participation that have been orchestrated by Republican-dominated state legislatures since 2009. Voter suppression actually has a long and ignominious history in the USA, but the 1965 Voting Rights Act cramped such efforts. The US Supreme Court’s neutering of the Voting Rights Act, Shelby County v Holder , opened up myriad possibilities for Republican shenanigans in the electoral arena. Republicans have created immense obstacles to registration - reduced the number of days for early voting, eliminated same-day registration - all with the clear and unadulterated aim of sinking, if not eliminating the Democratic electorate. What is striking is that, not very far behind their bogus arguments regarding alleged voter fraud, Republicans are close to admitting, or will outright admit, that their aim is to get potential Democratic voters to remain home.
Voter registration, instead of being encouraged and made more accessible, has become exceedingly difficult. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, for instance, registration forms have to be submitted within a certain number of days after they have been filled out, otherwise those who have conducted the registrations are penalized. Registration forms can only be submitted to the clerk in the county of residence of the registrant rather than being submitted elsewhere and channeled appropriately. And, in this age of identity theft, registrants are required to provide their full social security number. In each state where voter suppression efforts are underway there are similar stories.
Contemporary voter suppression parallels the practices carried out when Reconstruction was overthrown in 1877 and the ‘counterrevolution of property,’ to use W.E.B. Dubois’s term, succeeded. In many states, possession of property was established as an eligibility requirement to cast a ballot. This counterrevolution resulted in the disenfranchisement of African American voters and, with them, many poor whites. This was precisely the objective of “property” when faced with a populist rising against the gross inequalities of the Gilded Era and the post-Reconstruction period.
Today’s voter suppression gained traction in the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama as President. For the right-wing it was an “OMG” moment that they sought to undermine by any means necessary. As we are now aware, Senator Mitch McConnell united the Republicans around a strategy of obstruction in Congress, aiming to derail any Obama initiative. In the field, however, the objective was deeper and more demonic. The aim was to shrink the electorate. Some Republican ideologues went so far as to argue that the electorate should be reduced and that there were certain people who should not be able to vote because of ignorance or poverty. But the mass of Republican legislators crafted a strategy that based itself on the argument that there was voter fraud that had to be blocked through new and challenging initiatives in voter registration and voting. The arguments were as absurd as they were racist. There was no evidence of anything approaching significant voter fraud, yet the Republicans played upon racist myths and fears among many whites to create an atmosphere where such measures were taken seriously.
There have been repeated and significant efforts to block voter suppression efforts. Litigation has been the main tactic and, in some cases, there have been victories. But with every victory, the pox still spreads as the Republicans prove, once again, to be relentless in their pursuit of total power in the electoral arena. The question that progressives face is one of what to do?
Progressives and leftists have often not taken matters of voter registration particularly seriously, at least in the post-1965 Voting Rights Act era. Voter registration and voting rights more generally were relegated to the liberals and non-partisan do-gooders. While there were leftists, such as Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, who saw the importance of voting rights and registration, they tended to be more the exception than the rule. Added to this problem, the Democratic Party establishment regularly downplayed voter registration, ignoring the importance of expanding the electorate. Only in certain campaigns, e.g., during the Black-led electoral upsurge of the 1980s and the Obama campaign in 2008, was voter registration recognized to be of strategic importance in shifting the balance of forces.
In election years 2010, 2012 and 2014 various organizations, including but not limited to labor unions, mobilized against selective voter suppression efforts, particularly those conducted on Election Day. Yet the waves of assaults by the Republicans have not ceased and, with the crippling of the Voting Rights Act, the blood lust of the Republicans has become enhanced. For these reasons, the approach of progressives towards voter suppression needs to be reconsidered.
The battle for voting rights in the 20th century was not one mainly handled in the courts; it was handled in the ‘court’ of public opinion, specifically the streets. The dramatization of such efforts in the commercial media whether in the film Selma or in the recent HBO film All the Way reminds us of how repressive election laws once were in many parts of the USA (including but not limited to the South and the Southwest). It was the work of activists, most especially those associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that made a tremendous difference. Their work included the development of Citizenship Schools (done in conjunction with the Highlander Folk School), registration efforts and outright protests. This was exceedingly dangerous work making the courage of the activists that much more exceptional.
After 1965, there was an assumption in much of the liberal and progressive world that the Voting Rights Act was largely untouchable and that this would be a fortification to restrain the advances of the barbarians of the political Right. Unfortunately, the barbarians circumvented the fortifications and are now in an all-out assault on democratic rights. A reliance on court action will be insufficient.
Which brings us to an approach in the 2016 election year. Perhaps what is needed is a “Freedom Summer + Fall,” i.e., a major, multi-pronged mobilization that openly challenges voter suppression. Such an effort would necessitate large numbers of volunteers and the collaboration of organizations. Yet it is eminently do-able. Consider:
This effort would need to run from this very moment through Election Day (actually though the certification of the elections).
Voter suppression statutes would need to become the subject of litigation on a very broad scale. The undemocratic nature of them would need to be demonstrated and court action would be one particular platform.
Voter registration efforts would need to be enhanced with shuttles to get communities to registration sites. Student volunteers would need to be enlisted as part of a massive registration initiative.
Where local officials obstruct or block registration, there would need to be protests. Such protests might take the form of well-publicized sit-ins, or they might be massive stand-ins.
Coordinated days of actions would be needed in states raising the issue of voter suppression, particularly documenting the lack of evidence to justify any such efforts.
Absentee voting would need to be encouraged. This is very important particularly in those states where early voting has been eliminated or cut altogether.
There would need to be a focus on obtaining appropriate documentation. This might be among the most difficult challenges since there are many people who do not have birth certificates; lost their birth certificates; or for whatever reason are lacking the requisite information. Create media events that highlight the plight of those who do not have and are unable to obtain the appropriate documentation.
In states that permit gun identification in order register to vote, organized efforts would be needed to secure such identification.
Weekly demonstrations at the Republican National Committee would need to be mounted to raise awareness of this assault on democracy.
Pressure would need to be brought on governors to issue executive orders restoring voting rights to the formerly incarcerated in those states that permanently eliminate them, e.g., the April 2016 executive order by Virginia Governor McAuliffe.
A tremendous danger facing us is that of passively accepting the results of voter suppression efforts. Longer-term the counterattack on voter suppression will need to be at the level of state legislators. Progressive candidacies will need to run on the platform of overturning such efforts. Yet this will only happen when there is the sense of a mass movement. To the extent to which voter suppression is treated more like a nuisance that is addressed exclusively by litigation, we will lose the battle for democracy and the forces of authoritarianism will have their day in the sun.