By Lee A. Daniels
The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month let stand the state of Texas’ latest attempt to use the old tactics of the Jim Crow era and rig state and national elections in favor of the Republican Party by denying Black and Hispanic voters access to the ballot.
The refusal of the court’s conservative majority to support the ruling of a federal district court judge in Texas that the state legislature’s new photo ID law was “imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose” and is “an unconstitutional poll tax” was, in fact, to be expected, given its striking down last year the key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had protected black and Hispanic voting rights from the predatory actions of conservative state officials.
However, the court’s majority’s latest blow to democracy nonetheless drew a scathing rebuttal from the court’s three female Justices. That dissent, along with the original ruling of Federal District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, should be required reading for anyone wishing to understand the empty legalisms of the Republican Party’s photo ID law hustle.
As many have said, these laws, which had been percolating for years in GOP-dominated state legislatures but were fast-tracked once President Obama was elected to office, are “a solution in search of a problem.” Their proponents claim their purpose is to prevent voter fraud at the polls. But in all the legislative discussion of these acts, which eleven states now have on the books, Republicans (and their allies out in the conservative echo chamber of talk shows and think tanks) have never produced any significant evidence that even negligible voter fraud is attempted at polling places.
That’s the legislative and judicial history of the Texas law as well. During the federal trial, Texas state officials testified under oath that from 2002 to 2011—a period when a total of 20 million votes were cast in the state—just two cases of voter impersonation fraud at polls were prosecuted to conviction. One scholar whose specialty is examining voter fraud in modern-day American elections testified that she had found fewer than 10 instances of voter fraud at polling places in the entire country between 2000 and 2010.
So, then, why did the GOP-controlled Texas state legislature feel compelled to enact the strictest photo ID law in the country?
For that, one can ignore the state’s blatant, relentless efforts of the past half-century to continue its historical Jim-Crow voting policies. One can just look the state’s demographic facts of life of the last decade. As Judge Ramos stated, the census found that from 2000 to 2010 Hispanic Americans accounted for 65 percent of the state’s 4 million new residents, African Americans accounted for another 13.7 percent, and other people of color made up still another 11 percent. As an expert on demography and voting patterns put it, “Republicans in Texas are inevitably facing a declining voter base and can gain partisan advantage by suppressing the overwhelmingly Democratic votes of African Americans and Latinos.”
That explains the GOP’s support of photo ID laws all across the country as well—especially given the decision of the Party leadership’s after their 2012 loss to reject the Republican National Committee’s proposals for an “outreach” to voters of color and other key blocs of the Democratic coalition and just concentrate on increasing their votes from whites. Of course, the only way to do that is to double down on the old GOP strategy of stoking whites’ animosity toward people of color.
This is the path the GOP has been following with increasing extremism for the past half century—to continue what constitutes a “tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic traditions and is democracy turned upside down.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke those words in his “Give Us The Ballot” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1957—eight years before the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 enabled black Americans in the South to exercise the right to vote that was theirs by birth. Would King have foreseen that today a major political party would still be trying to deny blacks and other Americans that right? Like so many of King’s speeches, words he spoke then still challenge Americans:
“So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote,” he said, “I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind—it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I helped to enact—I can only submit to the edict of others.”
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.