The new Jim Crow: Massive disenfranchisement returns

As we approach 2012, a massive machine designed to deprive millions of Americans of their vote has been activated. Given its ability to keep primarily young, poor, elderly and non-white voters from the polls, it alone could swing the election to Mitt Romney.

Though mentioning it elicits howls of protest from the GOP, in fact this new Jim Crow disenfranchisement is deeply rooted in our history. Should it turn the 2012 election to the Republicans, it will be only the latest in a two-century tradition of abuses aimed at keeping the rich in power.

As we saw in the previous chapter, the politics of the United States was dominated until the Civil War by the Electoral College and the 3/5ths bonus. It was a disenfranchisement unique in world history. It referenced slaves who were allowed no human or political rights---least of all the right to vote---but used their physical presence to enhance the electoral power of their owners.

In retrospect, it was an astonishing abuse of human decency in a nation that considered itself a democracy. Yet it was a defining factor in deciding who would occupy the White House right up to 1860. Its use in setting Congressional districts also guaranteed southern power in the US House.

Today there are comparable abuses, among them the practice of counting prison populations toward Congressional representation.

But after the Civil War, with the southern slaves now freed, disenfranchisement took a new turn. Though defeated by the Union, southern whites---through the Democratic Party and its terrorist army, the Ku Klux Klan---were determined not to allow African-Americans the ability to vote.

That right had just been enshrined in the federal Constitution. The 13th Amendment officially freed the slaves. The 14th, in language soon to be hijacked by the corporations, guaranteed them the right to due process. And the 15th, ratified in 1870, guaranteed all Americans the right to vote “regardless of race.”

But there was a world of difference between clauses in the federal Constitution and the actual ability to vote in southern states. Almost immediately after the defeat of the Confederacy, its survivors began a reign of terror that kept African-Americans away from the polls for a century.

This was not an abstract issue. Throughout deep south African-Americans constituted more than 40% of the population. If they allied with a small percentage of liberal whites, they could dominate.

Under supervision of northern troops sent in during Reconstruction, they did just that. In the Carolinas, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and elsewhere, African-Americans were elected as sheriffs, mayors, state senators, governors, and members of Congress. They instituted a wide range of democratic reforms, including educational advances that let poor whites go to school for the first time.

All this was too much for Jackson’s Democrats. From the 1860s through the 1970s, at least 3300 blacks were lynched in the south. Though many were seen as acts of random violence, the lynchings constituted a coordinated campaign designed to keep African-Americans away from the polls. When the stolen election of 1876 was followed by the withdrawal of federal troops, white supremacy again ruled the south.

At the core of the Jim Crow segregationist infrastructure were laws specifically aimed at disenfranchisement. The grandfather clause, literacy tests and poll taxes were the key. The poll tax was not banned by Constitutional Amendment until 1964.

Until deep in the 1970s, the Jim Crow south sent an unyielding phalanx of reactionary white supremacist Democrats into the Congress. In many cases they dominated committee leadership through the seniority clause, filibuster and other anti-democratic procedures that turned the US Congress into a white old-boys’ club.

Yet another Jim Crow legal legacy was used to put George W. Bush in the White House in 2000, and could help Mitt Romney in 2012.

All eleven former states of the Confederacy passed laws permanently banning anyone convicted of a felony from voting. Since it was never a problem in the Jim Crow south to convict an African-American of anything, many thousands were thus deprived of the vote.

In Florida 2000, the law was still on the books. Governor Jeb Bush, the GOP nominee’s brother, hired a friendly computer company to track down alleged convicted felons and purge them from Florida’s voter rolls. The result was a list of some 125,000 or more Florida citizens who were stripped from the registration books in an election decided by less than 600 votes. That many thousands of these people had never been convicted of anything did nothing to deter the theft of the election.

Nor did it stop the procedure in other states. Ohio, for example, has no law saying felons cannot vote once they have served their sentences. But in 2004, in Republican-dominated counties, election officials sent letters to more than 35,000 Ohio citizens warning them not to attempt to vote because of their alleged status as ex-felons. In Hamilton County, home of Cincinnati, people received letters instructing them that they needed a judge to sign off on their voter registration form. As in Florida 2000, many of them had never been convicted of anything.

Ohio has also seen a wide range of new strategies aimed at preventing suspected Democrats from voting. In the run-up to 2004, GOP-controlled election boards stripped more than 300,000 urban voters from the registration books. Nearly all were in precincts that vote traditionally Democratic. Done in the name of eliminating duplications and other dubious details, most voters were purged for not responding to a mailing from the Republican Party or their board of elections, or for not having voted in the last two federal elections. The purge amounted to more than twice that of Bush’s margin of victory.

But as we approach 2012, the purge in Ohio has exceeded 1 million. In a state where the total vote count is generally between 5 and 6 million, this represents one of every five voters in the Buckeye State. Needless to say, the purges have focused in heavily Democratic urban areas. They involve more than enough trashed voters to greatly enhance Mitt Romney’s chances to carry the pivotal Buckeye State.

Ohio 2004 also hosted a wide range of creative tactics aimed at disenfranchising Democratic voters. Secretary of State Blackwell systematically deprived Democratic districts of electronic voting machines. On his official website he published inaccurate information on the location of polling places. He moved voters from one precinct to others without informing them, then ruled that they could only vote in their home precinct, wherever it might be.

While barring United Nations election observers from Ohio’s voting places under threat of arrest, Blackwell allowed partisan “challengers” to sit at the registration tables to contest people’s right to vote. Thousands were deprived of their ballots through these partisan challenges and the delays they imposed on all who turned out.

Just for good measure, a wide range of other tricks were deployed that hearkened back to the glory days of Richard Nixon’s plumbers, where Karl Rove came of age. Some precincts were issued writing utensils that didn’t work, others were short of ballots, still others had machines that didn’t work at all.

Indeed, in our HOW THE GOP STOLE AMERICA’S 2004 ELECTION we document more than 100 different ways Blackwell, Bush and Rove defied democracy in Ohio to give Bush a second term.

But as we approach 2012, and the voter rolls are stripped of untold numbers of likely Democratic voters, no single tactic will be more critical to a potential GOP victory than the mass disenfranchisement accomplished through the demand for photo ID.

As we’ve seen, the US has a deeply entrenched tradition of using a wide range of tactics for depriving select groups of citizens of their right to vote. By race, creed or lack of property ownership, there has never been a time when all Americans were duly protected in their natural franchise.

But the one consistent theme has been the ability of those in power to find new ways of keeping it.

With the new millennium, a primary weapon of attack has become the demand for official forms of photographic personal identification as a pre-requisite for obtaining a ballot.

The ground was laid with a number of well-funded presentations by right-wing front groups arguing that fraud on the part of the general public was wide-spread. The fact that there is virtually no evidence for this has done nothing to deter the campaign. Mark F. “Thor” Hearne, a co-counsel for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, created a faux “voting rights” organization and fanned the hysteria of so-called “voter fraud.” The Koch brothers supported the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which provided 32 states with model legislation to disenfranchise voters and demand various forms of heretofore unnecessary, identification at the polls, presumably to prevent the nonexistent voter fraud. Lorraine Minnite “The Myth of Voter Fraud” is essential reading on the subject.

In fact, through nearly all US history, the various states have required just a matching signature to obtain a ballot. In general, citizens have registered to vote by signing a document. When it comes time to get a ballot, tens of millions of Americans have merely signed again. Poll workers have checked their new signature against the one on the books and handed over a ballot, or given access to vote on a machine.

No doubt there have been instances of fraud through the centuries. Perhaps a few very close elections have been turned by it.

But such wrong-doing comes with serious felony penalties. They are levied against individuals. Anyone wishing to steal an election by such means would have to recruit a veritable army of both fraudulent voters and felonious poll workers.

Far easier would be merely to stuff ballot boxes and rig voting machines (see next chapter). Fraud by voters themselves has been repeatedly shown to pose virtually zero threat to the electoral process.

But in the corporate world of the new millennium, the GOP has made it into an art and science, somehow practiced on a grand scale wherever votes are cast. The outcome has been a set of restrictions that herald the return of Jim Crow disenfranchisement on a scale easily large enough to turn an election.

By creating the illusion of massive voter fraud, a “crisis” has materialized that has resulted in state legislatures passing laws that require a voter to produce official photo ID to obtain a ballot.

Indiana and Georgia were the first. Critics immediately argued that the requirement discriminated against the poor, the elderly, the young and people of color. The case went to the US Supreme Court, where the corporate Roberts majority dismissed the objections.

Photo ID laws are now in place in Florida, Michigan and eight other states. Ohio and numerous other states have instituted requirements involving a wider range of official documents. In all cases, various identification requirements have been embraced by more than half the states.

Photo IDs

There are a wide range of reasons why millions of Americans who once voted now may not. For many elderly who no longer drive an automobile, there has been no reason to sustain a driver’s license, and no other reason to get a photo ID. Many young citizens have not yet found a reason to have a driver’s license. Many of America’s poor also have no reason to have a photo ID. Many religious groups---including many Native Americans---do not believe in having their picture taken. Many ordinary Americans have political and personal reasons for not wanting official photographs taken.

Overall, the process has guaranteed the disenfranchisement of exactly those millions of Americans the GOP would least like to see in the voting booth.

It is unclear exactly how many Americans will thus lose their vote in 2012. The estimates vary widely. Estimates were that up to 900,000 voters in Ohio alone would have lost their right to vote had the Republicans had not repealed their draconian voter ID law that only accepted three types of ID; driver’s license, official state ID, or military ID.

But the return of a high-tech Jim Crow has been unmistakable. That it favors the Republican Party is not doubted. That it could shift a close election is all too clear.

To counter-act this attack on the right to vote would take tens of thousands of dedicated activists, fighting the trend in state legislatures, working the polling places on an individual basis. It would also take a concerted effort by the Democratic Party to insure that each and every deserving voter is given a ballot and allowed to cast it in peace and security.

That army of volunteers was available to Barack Obama in 2008, when he won the presidency. It is not likely to be back to help him in 2012. The obvious beneficiaries will be Mitt Romney, Karl Rove and the GOP.