By Lee A. Daniels
It’s not too soon to ask a critical question of citizens of voting age who tend to vote for Democratic candidates: Do you think you’ll be allowed to vote in 2016?
The Republican Party in numerous states across the country has been working hard to ensure that for many voters who fit that profile, the answer will be “no.”
A half century ago the Civil Rights Movement’s ultimate legislative victory – the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – guaranteed Black Americans’ right to vote. Blacks’ subsequent dedication to a democracy’s fundamental expression of responsible citizenship – voting – led directly to Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 electoral victories.
In the latter, Obama won 93 percent of Blacks’ votes, 73 percent of Asian-Americans’ votes, 71 percent of Hispanic-Americans’ votes, and the majority of votes from women as a group and voters age 18 to 29. That support, along with gaining 39 percent of votes cast by Whites, gave him a 4.7 million popular-vote and 332-to-206 Electoral College margin of victory.
Since then, American voters’ access to the ballot box has once again been threatened: by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 striking down the key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights, and the resulting blizzard of enacted and proposed acts in Republican-dominated state legislatures intended to suppress voting by those groups whose majorities vote for Democratic candidates.
The oily Republican justifications for these bills are that they’re to prevent voter fraud. But Republicans have never produced any evidence that voter fraud actually exists at any level of American politics. Indeed, during a federal court trial last year over Texas’ new restrictive voter-identification law, state officials testified that from 2002 to 2011, when a total of 20 million votes were cast in the state, just two cases of voter impersonation fraud were prosecuted to conviction. A scholar whose specialty is examining voter fraud in modern-day American elections testified that for the years 2000 to 2010 she had found fewer than 10 instances of voter fraud at polling places in the entire country.
The federal court in Texas struck down the law, but that decision was reversed by the conservative-dominated U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, an action which, to no one’s surprise, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority backed.
Those facts exposing the GOP chimera of voter fraud recall the response Jesse Jackson always had during the 1970s to Whites’ resistance to the use of busing as a tool of school integration. He would say: “It’s not the bus. It’s us.”
That point effectively answers the rhetorical question Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton posed during her June 4 speech about voting rights at Texas Southern University. Referring to the Republicans, she asked, “What part of democracy are they afraid of?”
As Clinton well knows, part of the answer lies in considering the voting statistics of the recent past, such as those cited above, on the one hand, and, on the other, America’s demographic makeup. For example, census data show that in Texas from 2000 to 2010 Hispanic Americans comprised 65 percent of its 4 million new legal residents, Blacks accounted for 13.7 percent, and other people of color another 11 percent.
True, many of the new Texans are still children, or are adults not registered to vote, and Texas’ population growth significantly outstrips most other states. But, given the GOP’s just-us hostility to inclusiveness and its continuing extremist positions on numerous issues, its only hope of again gaining the presidency depends on decreasing the potential votes the Democrats can count on.
That’s why the Clinton campaign and the Democrats’ separate political operation are challenging restrictive voter laws in such Republican-dominated battleground states as Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia. And that’s why Clinton in her Texas Southern speech proposed several specific ways to both register new voters and ensure that all registered voters will be able to vote next year.
Those include: universal automatic voter registration in order to register every American citizen at 18; legislation approving at least 20 days of early voting, including evenings and weekends, in order to make voting more convenient for all; and repeal of punitive state laws that bar ex-offenders no longer on probation or parole from voting.
This new battle for expanding the number of Americans who are registered to vote and ensuring that they can vote isn’t a small matter. It’s estimated that as many as one-third of all eligible voters – more than 50 million Americans – aren’t registered to vote.
Predictably, GOP presidential candidates and partisans slammed the speech as “divisive” – as if registering new voters and trying to convince them to vote for your party isn’t the essence of democratic-with-a-small-d politics. But then, it’s long been apparent that democratic-with-a-small-d politics is something today’s Republican Party has very little interest in.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com.