Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Current War on Voting Rights in America

New American Media

Ninety-seven-year-old Emma Lee Green balances an armload of old books and yellowing papers around the stacks of musty files in her San Bernardino attic. She remembers well the days of Jim Crow, poll taxes and literacy tests that barred many African-American citizens from the voting booth.

Americans set their clocks back one hour last Sunday. But a wave of new voting restrictions could turn back the clock to the days poll taxes and literacy tests meant to stop African-Americans from voting.
She witnessed first-hand the valiant struggle to ensure that all American citizens could raise their voices on Election Day.

Like she has done for nearly 65 years, last week Emma went to the polls to vote in the local elections.

But one year from now, mill ions of Black Americans like Emma could find themselves shut out of that essential democratic right.

This year, thirty-four state legislatures introduced bills requiring photo identification in order to vote. This rash of legislation classifies several previously accepted IDs as unacceptable, and will affect roughly 21 million Americans if they are passed.

With the election season on the horizon a new report is warning the legal disenfranchisement of voters threatens to play a decisive role in next year’s vote. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a non partisan policy institute change to voting laws could strip the voting rights of more than 5 million people, a higher number than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections.

It’s findings show that new laws regarding photo identification requirements for voting, eliminating same day voter registration in several states, requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote, changing requirements for voter registration drives, reducing early voting days and restoring the right to vote for convicted felons will make voting harder and swing the 1964 Voting Rights pendulum backward.

The report predicts the new curbs will have a major impact on those inclined to vote for Democratic candidates saying “these new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority and low income voters as well as on voters with disabilities.”

Emma insists the new wave of voting restrictions amount to a modern-day poll tax.

“You see this (referring to a 1959 receipt for poll taxes) the book ain’t closed on keeping us from voting,” she said angrily.

“Requiring a photo ID is really just a way to reduce the number of black and brown voters. That’s what the Democrats did after 1898 ...,” she said.

The term poll tax has a contemptuous history in the United States. It was used in the South during and after Reconstruction as a means of circumventing the 14th Amendment and denying civil rights to Blacks. This form of taxation gradually fell out of favor in the South in the mid-20th century, but it was not until the adoption of the 24th Amendment that poll taxes were made illegal as a prerequisite for voting in federal elections. That same prohibition was later extended to all elections.

The poll tax argument has been renewed with the national push by secretive right-wing groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, to pass voter suppression laws such as Wisconsin’s voter ID bill.

According to Brennan researchers, African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to register to vote during voter registration drives in Florida, and new photo I.D. requirements in Texas do not include forms of identification heavily used by minorities.

Several other states including Florida and Michigan are looking at various photo identification requirements, with Mississippi holding a referendum in November regarding a proposal and Missouri slated to vote on a state constitutional amendment in 2012.

“For anyone who thought legal disenfranchisement was a thing of the past, think again.”

That’s Linnie Frank Bailey, author, columnist and one of the leaders of the Obama Riverside movement during the 2008 election. Bailey, a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post says she fears that history may be repeating itself.

“We are going backwards in terms of civil and voting rights. Looking at the sheer numbers of people who could be affected by this wave of attacks on voter’s rights is absolutely frightening.”

Bailey recalls in 2008, then- Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama made an extensive and unprecedented outreach towards young adults to gain their votes. As a result-according to voter turnout was the highest it's been since 1972 (when exit polling was initiated), giving their support to him in record numbers (66 percent of voters under 30 voted Democratic).

Bailey says young people who played a significant role in the election of now President Obama in 2008 have been disengaging from civic and political activities to a degree unimaginable a mere three years ago. But that’s about to change she says pointing to growing frustrations on display at “Occupy” movements stretching across the U.S.

“I see a whole new wave of political activism emerging. There was such passion among the president’s supporters that was allowed to fizzle out. Now, people are taking to the streets to have their voices heard. For every person out there, there are many more struggling with housing, medical bills, and crippling debt.”

Bailey says the Occupy movement is what she and other political organizers expected following the Obama election.

“Non-violent protest, from Gandhi to King, has proven effective in instituting policy changes. However, along with passion you must have purpose. I am waiting to see what the occupiers will work FOR. . .not against.”

Meanwhile Emma Green is gearing up to register new voters at her church this weekend. She laments just as Dixiecrats once used poll taxes and literacy tests to bar Black Southerners from voting, a new crop of GOP governors and state legislators are determined turn back the clock on hard fought civil rights advances.

Ironically she places the poll tax receipt next to a photograph of last month’s dedication of Washington’s new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial.

“It took a lot of humiliation, and bloodshed to get to that Tidal Basin,” she said. “It looks like we still got a long way to go.”

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