Stomping on Martin’s Dream

Writing to overturn key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts declared, “Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically. Largely because of the Voting Rights Act ‘[v]oter turnout and registration rates’ in covered jurisdictions ‘now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.’…The tests and devices that blocked ballot access have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years.”

“Justice,” in this case, is best understood as an occupational title, not a moral principle, let alone an aspiration to mend our grievously fragmented social contract.

No sooner did the U.S. Supreme Court stomp on the Voting Rights Act, nullifying some provisions and sending the pivotal Section 5 back to Congress for refinement (good luck with that), than Texas, followed by a host of Republican-led state legislatures, set about making radical changes in election policies, practices, and laws.

The crucial part, Section 5, required certain states and counties notorious in years past for infringing on the voting rights of people in certain groups, said groups defined largely by the color of their skin, to ask permission of the Department of Justice before changing state voting laws.

Adopted initially in 1965 and extended in 1970, 1975, and 1982, the Voting Rights Act was arguably the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted by the United States Congress. Then John Roberts got out his chain saw and work boots.

Normally, it takes months or even years before the full effect of a Supreme Court decision can be assessed, let alone felt at ground level. This time it took a day. The ink was barely dry on John Roberts’s signature before the Texas legislature reinstated a voter registration law earlier overturned and put on hold by a lower District Court. Other states followed suit.

Consider this: In Texas, between 600,000 and 800,000 registered voters lack the photo ID the new law requires. People of color are between 46 percent and 120 percent more likely than whites to be in that number. Voter ID cards are issued by the Department of Public Safety. Only 81 of 254 Texas counties have DPS offices. Some people must travel as much as 250 miles to get to a DPS office; counties where the majority of residents are not white are far more likely to lack a DPS branch; non-whites in these counties are about half as likely as whites to have a car. DPS ID cards are free to non-drivers, but the documents required to validate the person’s identity and right to be in Texas are not. Obtaining a birth certificate is no easy matter in any state. Texas requires an original, not a copy. If the person’s name on the birth certificate is not the same as the one being used, then another original document – a marriage license or court ordered name change, for example, also not free – must be presented.

I have a driver’s license. I have my birth certificate. I have a court decree allowing a name change. I am not in Texas. Still, reading the Texas brochure explaining how to document my identity made my head want to explode.

Texas does not accept as valid a student ID card – not even one issued by a state college, a welfare ID card, or a SNAP (food stamp) ID card. But I’m not picking on Texas alone. Other states reject certain state-issued photo IDs but accept others, such as a concealed weapon license.

It’s not just Voter ID cards that are stomping on Martin Luther King’s dream. Republican legislatures and state election officials are cutting back on polling places in strategic areas – places where the majority of voters are of color, to be specific. Here’s Texas again: in one county that is home to a traditionally black college, where there were four polling places now there is one. And that one is expected to serve more than 9,000 voters. The state average is 1,500 voters per site. Outside the 9,000-voter poll are 35 parking places. And the law does not allow polls to stay open after the normal closing time if people are still on line waiting to vote.

Get the picture? Even people who have been able to vote in years past stand to lose that right if the 30-plus states contemplating, or implementing, strict Voter ID laws are successful. Says the American Civil Liberties Union,

“Studies suggest that up to 11 percent of American citizens lack such ID, and would be required to navigate the administrative burdens to obtain it or forego the right to vote entirely….Three additional states passed laws to require documentary proof of citizenship in order to register to vote, though as many as 7 percent of American citizens do not have such proof.”

Almost without exception, those who will find themselves required to jump through flaming hoops to vote, and those unable to make the leap, will be people of color, elders, students, and those with disabilities. What do these groups have in common? They’re more apt to vote for Democrats; they tend to see the Republican Party as indifferent, if not outright hostile, to their interests.

Now why in the world would they think that?

Personally, I don’t think that rank and file Republicans are necessarily blind to what their chosen party is up to. I think that independent voters and registered Democrats, who see what’s going on but don’t have much sway with the legislators who are stomping us back to the 1960s, have a role to play in talking with reasonable, ethical, aware Republicans, getting them to call on their legislators to remedy this situation before the 2014 elections.

Legal challenges will proliferate. Voter registration drives will help people get the documentation they need to vote. And maybe, just maybe, the Obama Administration will be as good as its word.

On August 22, as the Justice Department filed suit against the new Texas law in federal district court, Attorney General Eric Holder said,

“We will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights,” Holder said Thursday. “We will keep fighting aggressively to prevent voter disenfranchisement. This [suit]represents the department’s latest action to protect voting rights, but it will not be our last.”

And on August 28, speaking at the ceremony celebrating 50 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, crowned by Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech, President Barack Obama said,

“[W]e would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote, or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all…it requires vigilance.

And we’ll suffer the occasional setback. But we will win these fights. This country has changed too much. People of goodwill, regardless of party, are too plentiful for those with ill will to change history’s currents.”

From your lips to god’s ears, Mr. President. We can help, but it’s you who ultimately must pick up dear Martin’s dream from under the heels of those who would grind it to dust. At this you must not fail.

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