Last week, thousands of people participated in a re-enactment of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights, which was directly responsible for the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The recent march culminated with a rally at the state capitol. “We didn’t come to commemorate what happened 47 years ago. We came to continue what happened 47 years ago,” said Reverend Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network was a principal organiser of the march. Martin Luther King III told the crowd his father would have opposed voter photo-ID laws being passed or considered in many states. “I think my father would be greatly disappointed in our nation,” he said. Republicans allege that in-person voter fraud is on the up and up. Yet there’s simply no evidence – or plausible motive – for suspecting that individual voters pose a threat to our democracy. In fact, many of these new measures contribute to the further disenfranchisement of minority groups, while leaving the door open to the potential abuse of electronic vote counts.
According to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice last October, Voting Law Changes in 2011, 34 states had introduced photo ID bills, seven of which had been passed by that time. Five more were passed, but vetoed by state governors. More than 21 million citizens nationwide – around seven per cent of US citizens – do not have such ID. At least 12 states introduced proof of citizenship laws, requiring would-be voters to produce a birth certificate in order to register or vote. Previously, only two states had passed such laws. Before 2006, none had.
Furthermore, at least 13 states introduced bills to end highly popular Election Day and same-day voter registration, limit voter registration mobilisation efforts, and reduce other registration opportunities. This last group of bills have no conceivable relationship to voter fraud. Overall, the report found that these new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities. This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election. The laws already passed then could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012, and involve states with 171 electoral college votes, 63 per cent of the 270 needed to win the presidency.
All manner of rationales and practices were used to prevent blacks from registering and voting – especially in the South – before the Voting Rights Act was passed. Other minorities were also affected, along with poor whites. Indeed, the roll-back of voting rights characterised an entire era of US history – from roughly 1850 to 1920 – as described by Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar in his 2000 book, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. After 1920, voting rights remained restricted until the Civil Rights era. Rationales of efficiency, fraud prevention, and “protecting democracy” were commonplace in the rollback of voting rights during that earlier era, but the ulterior motives are impossible to miss from a distance of 100 years or more. However, they’re not that much harder to see today.