August 28, 1963, was a day that ultimately led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s been 50 years since that fateful March on Washington, but it seems like only yesterday. I can hear it now – “I have a dream…” – and so can you. Regretfully, there are powerful forces today attempting to stop our nation’s forward movement and turn the clock back.
This summer, the five radical-reactionaries on the U. S. Supreme Court overturned the part of the Voting Rights Act that had specified certain states to have changes in their voting laws approved by the Justice Department. Justices Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas claimed that the law had been so successful that it was no longer needed in its present form. However, we are in a time when many Republican-controlled states are actively making it more difficult for voters to exercise their rights. States like Texas, North Carolina, and Florida are reducing early voting days, reducing the number of polling locations, adding new ID requirements, and more.
Whenever and wherever the Fox-Republican-TEA Party gets control of a state’s governorship and legislature we experience corporate-sponsored ALEC-written laws being introduced and passed. (The American Legislative Exchange Council writes templates for its legislative members to introduce as their own laws.) Because this is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we should take a look at the right-wing’s current obsession with voter suppression. By the way, all 279 Republicans in Congress were invited to attend the celebration in front of the Lincoln Memorial, but every one of them declined to attend. Since our nation’s founding, voting rights have been hard fought for, so we need to pay attention to what these people are up to.
Normally, when the GOP extremists react against any progress of the 20th and 21st centuries, they only want to return our nation to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century when the Robbers Barons, or Captains of Industry, ruled the roost. But when it comes to voting rights, it seems they want to go all the way back to the first 30 years of our fledgling republic before Jacksonian Democracy took hold. In those years, only those with property were able to vote. In the 1820’s, white male commoners also acquired the vote, and they elected Andrew Jackson, who was never accepted in polite society. The Whig Party, forerunner to today’s Republican Party, was formed in opposition, hating Jackson almost as much as the current Republicans mindlessly hate Obama.
The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 5 million otherwise-eligible voters will be disenfranchised by the new Republican voter suppression laws. One can presume that ALEC and their think-tank allies have secretly reached the same conclusion. Barack Obama won the popular vote against Mitt Romney by 5 million votes. They believe if that many people can be prevented from voting in 2016, then the right kind of person can be elected president.
The excuse used to justify these anti-voter laws and regulations is supposedly to prevent voter fraud. The Bush-Cheney administration went to great lengths to accumulate evidence of individuals pretending to be someone else in order to vote. They came up with virtually nothing and finally gave up. Hopefully, voters are now aware that they are many times more likely to be struck by lightning than there is for someone to commit voter fraud. Nevertheless, Republican lawmakers want us to believe that even if only 5 people actually commit voter fraud, then 5 million should be deprived of their right to vote.
The real reason for voter suppression is to prevent as many people as possible from voting who are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican. Though not specified in the voter ID laws, their intended victims include students, minorities, the elderly, those with low incomes, and those with disabilities.
Up until the 2012 elections, North Carolina and Arkansas were islands of reason and sanity in the South but not anymore. Why did Arkansas’s recently-elected Republican legislature pass an obviously unnecessary voter ID law? Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, correctly vetoed it because it was “a solution in search of a problem.” The legislature did what ALEC expected of them and passed it again over his veto with a simple majority vote. (Note: In October 2014, the Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously declared the voter restriction law to be unconstitutional.) But if President Obama only got 37 percent of the vote in Arkansas in 2012, why are the state’s Republicans so eager to restrict voting?
I suggest a one-word answer: Hillary. In the primaries of 2008, Arkansas voters strongly supported Hillary Clinton. On the issues, Hillary and Obama were virtually identical. However, once the Democratic nomination went to Obama, Arkansas voters stampeded from those issues to support John McCain whose positions were completely opposite.
I thought that the nomination and election of Barack Obama had permanently moved Arkansas into the Republican camp for the remainder of my life. If Arkansas’s anti-voter law means anything, it is that our Republicans don’t feel secure if Hillary is the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. If it weren’t for the fear of Arkansans voting for their former state and national First Lady, why would they be working so hard to prevent people from voting who had voted Republican in the last four presidential elections – and by landslides when Barack Obama was on the ballot?
Republican efforts to reduce voter turnout in 2012 in states like Florida and Pennsylvania only resulted in angering the electorate and caused the people to be more determined to vote than expected. Maybe if Hillary is on the ticket in 2016, Arkansas voters may forgive the Democratic Party for nominating Barack Obama sooner than I think – at least our Republican legislature seems to think so.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published September 10, 2013, in the El Dorado News-Times and in the September 12, 2013, edition of the Arkansas Times as a letter to the editor.