News & Politics

The Cancer of Voter Suppression: The GOP's Silent Coup

Republican-led efforts in more than a dozen states are rolling back the 20th Century's civil rights gains.

The history of the United States of America has been one of an on-going fight to expand the right to vote.  

Originally restricted to white men with property, the franchise expanded over time, eventually including African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Then, in what the eminent scholar W.E.B. Dubois described as a “counter-revolution,” the achievements of the Reconstruction period were ended and the franchise was restricted in the South, virtually eliminating African American and many poor white voters from any political existence.  Nevertheless, the fight continued to expand the franchise, both challenging the machinations that limited voting but also eventually extending the right to vote to women.  By the 1960s dramatic breakthroughs were accomplished and with the Voting Rights Act, and both the lowering of the voting age and various state actions, increasing numbers of citizens were empowered to vote.

But a cancer has begun to spread in the electoral realm, one that is appropriately receiving greater and greater attention.  

It is the cancer of voter dis-enfranchisement and it is happening under the banner of stopping alleged voter fraud.  While this may sound perfectly reasonable, there is only one problem:  voter fraud has not been documented as a significant problem any time in the recent past.  Nevertheless, a primarily Republican legislative offensive has taken place in fourteen states that could make it more difficult for at least five million voters to cast their ballots in November 2012.

The facts of this offensive are on display in a must-read report issued by the Brennan Center for Justice, entitled, Voting Law Changes in 2012.  Authored by Wendy R. Weiser and Lawrence Norden, the report documents aggressive efforts by primarily Republican state legislators to limit voting.  The attacks have been intense.

They have ranged from making voter registration campaigns more difficult to organize; the need for SPECIAL government-issued identification in order to vote; additional background in order to register to vote; the elimination of same-day registration (i.e., registering to vote on election day and then voting); the cutting back on early voting and in some places eliminating Sunday voting; and making it more difficult to restore voting rights for the formerly incarcerated.  The actual form of the attack differs from state to state but what they share in common is a specific objective: to narrow the electorate in order to guarantee that ultra-conservatives are elected to office.

Let’s take one example:  proof of citizenship.  This may sound quite reasonable.  In the past when registering all an individual needed to do was to provide proof of where they lived.  The penalties for voter fraud are quite severe so someone has to think at least twice before they commit it.  With the demonization of so many immigrants, particularly those from south of the border and from Asia, requirements have changed.  But the ramifications or consequences of these changes go beyond immigrants.  The demand for documents of citizenship potentially affects at least 7% of the electorate, according to the Brennan Center.  Why, you ask?  Because many people do not have their birth certificates; they may have been born at home and not had them properly registered.  They also may simply not have access to them without paying what for some people may be a substantial fee.

The example that sends chills up my spine, however, concerns Sunday voting.  Work-week voting has always struck me as an ‘excellent’ means of discouraging voting.  Many people cannot take the time off to vote and/or are not permitted to do so.  Therefore, early voting is both reasonable and truly democratic.  Yet, many conservative legislators seeing the appeal of Sunday voting to African American churchgoers, moved to block this.  Their explanations or rationales simply do not add up.  The equation for the Republicans is that African American churchgoers are more than likely Democratic Party voters, therefore they need to be blocked.

For these reasons there appear to be the makings of massive electoral theft, something that goes beyond the crudeness of both Florida in 2000 and the voting machine issues in Ohio in 2004.  This is about the “legal” elimination of millions of voters, particularly those who the Republicans expect to vote Democratic.  When these individuals are restricted from voting, or too discouraged to vote, the charlatans who passed the regressive legislation that made this all possible will simply throw their hands into the air and feign a lack of responsibility.

As with any cancer, this must be rooted out before it gets to Stage 4.  In our case “Stage 4” is a stolen election and a quiet coup by forces that represent the interests of a wealthy elite that is out of touch with the reality that the average person in the USA experiences.


Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the Director of Field Services & Education for the American Federation of Government Employees. He is also a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of Solidarity Divided.