Not so long ago, you could go to the polls with a utility bill, sign an affidavit, and a poll worker would confirm you were registered. Then you could vote. Ronald Reagan was elected this way. So was George H.W. Bush.
But after a Democrat won two terms in 1992 and 1996, we suddenly began hearing about fictional “voting fraud” from right wing media pundits. Ever since, Republican governors and GOP-led state legislatures have erected barriers to voting, their goal to keep suspected Democrats — and especially minorities — away from the polls, or at least make voting so arduous and time consuming, minorities would give up.
“Voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done!” bragged the state’s Republican House Majority Leader Mike Turzai last year when he affirmed the true purpose of voter suppression laws.
Their chicanery backfired in 2012. In states where Republicans tried to prevent minority voting, African-Americans, Latinos and Hispanics, the young, and the elderly turned out in droves, stood their ground, and waited in five-hour-long lines to exercise their franchise.
It was a proud if underappreciated moment in American history.
Today, GOP leaders know their brand is reeling toward extinction as the Republican Party continues to be driven by extreme ideologues while the rest of America becomes younger, more diverse, and increasingly tolerant.
So in many states where Republicans control the agenda, rather than moderate their views, they’re manipulating the voting laws. When you can’t win the debate, you change the rules.
Congress anticipated this kind of bad behavior in 1965 when it passed the Voting Rights Act. Section Five of the legislation requires nine states in the South and all or parts of seven others to submit any plans to change their voting laws to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval.
Shelby County in Alabama recently brought suit against Justice seeking to invalidate this key provision.
“Section Five … was never intended by Congress to be permanent,” claims Frank Ellis, a Shelby County lawyer. “Things have changed in the South.”
Not really. Voter suppression nowadays just doesn’t look as nakedly brutal as it did when white Alabama police officers viciously beat peaceful black voting rights demonstrators on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965.
Georgia Rep. John Lewis, whose skull was fractured at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge that day, calls Section Five, “the soul of the Voting Rights Act.”
Intimidation, poll taxes and literacy tests have morphed into government-issued photo IDs, certified proof of citizenship, disinformation campaigns, purged and caged voter lists, curtailed early voting, and limited voting machines in minority-heavy precincts.
Jim Crow has been replaced by the innovation of discrimination, and it’s openly, even proudly practiced by Republican governors, secretaries of state, and legislatures in most all the Southern states targeted by Section Five. Nevertheless, Shelby County’s suit made its way to the Supreme Court where it was heard last week. Predictably, conservative justices expressed doubt about Section Five’s relevance.
Justice Anton Scalia tellingly opined that Section Five — and the right to vote that it protects — is just another “minority entitlement.”
“Unless a court can say it does not comport with the Constitution,” proclaimed Scalia, “this is not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress …”
And conservatives worry about liberal judges legislating from the bench?
“The disease is still there,” observed Justice Stephen Breyer during the arguments. “It’s gotten a lot better…but it’s still there.”
Of course it is.
Kevin Foley is a public relations executive, author and writer who lives in Kennesaw.