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Vote suppression in America - Return of Jim Crow?

Published:Sunday | September 2, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Lawrence Alfred Powel

Lawrence Alfred Powell, Contributor

An ominous return to Jim Crow-like practices in 10 of the American states - intended to suppress suffrage rights of persons from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds - could potentially influence the outcome of this year's presidential election.

If the election turns out to be close, a slight Democratic Party advantage in the opinion polls could be offset by intentionally lowered turnout levels among the poor, unemployed, youth, elderly, Latinos and African-Americans - all of whom typically cast their ballots disproportionately for Democrats.

Historically, the United States is already a country that has typically voted at embarrassingly low levels relative to most other modern industrialised democracies. Election turnouts in nations like Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and Germany have consistently averaged 80 to 90 per cent over the past few decades. Other countries, like Israel, France and the UK, average in the 70s. Compared to these, the US average turnout of 56 per cent stands out as anaemic.


But the new 'voter ID laws' now being promoted and legislated by Republicans promise to render this situation even worse for prospective US voters. The handicap will fall disproportionally on those lower-income groups who are least likely to have access to a photo ID (requiring, for example, a driver's licence), and who cannot afford to risk salary or job loss by skipping work to vote during the newly restricted voting times.

Following Obama's resounding electoral landslide in 2008 as 'the first black president' in American history, Republicans and their Tea Party allies responded to the perceived political threat by first discrediting in the mass media, and then defunding ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), which had previously provided assistance to minority and low-income Americans in registering to vote.

They also aggressively attempted to tighten the voter-registration procedures in as many states as possible leading into the 2010 (midterm congressional) and 2012 (presidential) elections - removing voter-friendly options such as early voting, and requiring that would-be voters produce special state-issued photo IDs in order to prove their identity.

So far, restrictive measures of this type (special photo ID required to vote) have been passed in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas, South Dakota and Idaho. A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University shows that, in the states that have passed such voter ID laws, about 11 per cent of US voting-age citizens now lack the credentials that would make them eligible to vote in those states.

They also found that one in 10 affected Americans becomes more discriminatory with disadvantaged status. Thus one in six Latinos, one in five elderly persons (over 65), and one in four African-Americans currently lack the proper credentials to be eligible to vote in 2012, according to these new ID laws. The Brennan Center report suggests that the process of attempting to obtain these IDs would be an uphill battle for many of these citizens, if they persist.

The Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, has ordered a purge of the voter lists based on driver's licence records. The Miami Herald reports that, among the 180,000 voters deemed "ineligible" in the records purge, 58 per cent were Hispanic, and 14 per cent were black, with whites and Republicans, not surprisingly, least likely to be excluded. Early-voting times available for persons facing conflicts with working hours have also been reduced, and a ban has been placed on voter-registration drives leading into the 2012 election.

According to Pennsylvania's recently passed law, prospective voters must present an ID that is only available through the state's Department of Transportation. Therefore, people who reside in urban ghettos and don't drive, or young people with an out-of-state driver's licence, or disabled or elderly people with mobility problems, will not be able to produce the proper credentials to vote. The state acknowledges that at least 10 per cent of prospective Pennsylvania voters lack the necessary identification, and that in large cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the number who would be excluded by these new rules is roughly double that.

But a moment of sanity: Last Thursday, a federal court put the brakes on Texas' voter ID bid, ruling that it was imposing "strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor".


The disenfranchising potential of these new voting restrictions is usually cloaked in arguments that they are needed in order to rein in rampant fraud and corruption in the voter-registration process, making it more efficient, fair, and democratic. Fraudulent practices like impersonation, non-citizen voting, and multiple-voting would presumably be filtered out.

But the real motives underlying the various surface rationales for the new voter-suppression laws can be glimpsed in a recent article by conservative Washington journalist Matthew Vadum in 'The American Thinker'. In a revealing column titled 'Registering the Poor to Vote is Un-American', he asks, why activist groups like ACORN are "so keen on registering the poor to vote? Because they know the poor can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians ... . Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals." He goes on to explain that this "is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering [them] to vote ... . It's about helping the poor to help themselves to others' money."


These concerted voter-suppression efforts in 10 states, affecting 124 of the Electoral College votes, when combined with the recent Citizens United v Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision freeing up corporate spending to fund campaign ad blitzes in crucial swing states, could be enough to nudge a close 2012 election into the Republican column, even if Democrats are somewhat ahead in the opinion polls.

By selectively depressing turnout, a portion of the US electorate will have been quietly disenfranchised - in ways reminiscent of the Jim Crow practices and restrictive electoral laws that had prevailed between 1865 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That was an era when such devices as poll taxes and 'literacy tests' were extensively used to limit voting access.

Amazingly, there has been little outrage expressed in mainstream media at this brazen attempt to tamper with the electoral process - though it clearly violates fundamental notions of freedom, equality and democracy that lie at the heart of the US legacy.

Surely, in earlier decades, the likes of Edward R. Murrow, David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather would have sounded a strident alarm - that something has gone terribly wrong here.

It has taken reactionary Republicans fully half a century, but they have finally begun to find ways to systematically, and legally, undo the hard-fought gains of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. About now, Martin Luther King, and Lyndon Johnson, and Frederick Douglass must be turning in their graves.

Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and the former polling director for the Centre for Leadership and Governance at UWI, Mona. Email feedback to and