We just listened to Richard and Mimi Farina’s”House Un-American Activity Blues Dream,” an electrified and electrifying musical offering that preceded Bob Dylan’s more famous “Bringing It All Back Home” by several months, and marks the initial cross-fertilization between rock and folk music. Although it’s almost fifty years old, it continues to resonate–one recent commentator on Rombama/Obomney even went so far as to note that
Both Obama and Romney stay fit, dress sharply and look vaguely out of sync when wearing blue jeans.
certainly an odd echo of Farina’s line about “Presidential candidates in new Levi jeans.”
And Farina’s solution to his feelings of alienation in the USA–a trip to Cuba–continues to raise American hackles, as Ozzie Guillen discovered to his dismay. Talk about getting “banged hard on the head”!
But most of us are not going to pick up and go elsewhere. “America, love it or leave it,” the reactionaries used to say in the sixties, and a lot of us lefties, from old SDS types like me to the youngest Occupiers, have picked up that gauntlet and said, “yeah, I love America and I ain’t leaving. What are you gonna do about it?”
The answer has been, “do everything we can to disfranchise as many left-wingers as possible, so we can continue to hold the reins in this country.” Some people have been directly disfranchised, like the five million or more Americans who cannot vote because they have been convicted of felonies. The US is one of the only countries in which felony conviction results in permanent loss of voting rights, at the same time as it has, both by percentage and in raw numbers, more of its population in jail or under control of the penal system through probation and parole than any other country in the world, largely for “victimless” crimes such as drugs–mostly marijuana–pornography, prostitution, and traffic violations. The allegedly felonious percentage of our population picked up markedly when Reagan declared the “war on drugs,” which, as I commented last month, turned the “war on poverty” into a war on the poor.
Even if they have never suffered legal consequences from the herb’s contraband status, marijuana users who wish to remain free will tend to keep a lower political profile due to their vulnerability, an effective form of “passive-aggressive” repression that, I believe, is one of the deliberate consequences of the government’s unrelenting efforts to keep marijuana illegal.
But there are subtler ways to disfranchise people than by outright busting them. The NAACP has written an excellent report on this subject, and I’m going to summarize it for you. It’s called “Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights In America.”
The NAACP starts by pointing out that the non-white population of the US is increasing faster than the white population. I was surprised to learn that heavily white Republican-ruled Texas is now a “majority-minority” state–one in which non-whites outnumber whites. This is also the status of California, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia. I was also surprised to learn that five other states–Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, and Nevada–are likely to join that category by the next census. in this context, the extraordinary efforts of mostly white Republicans to limit ballot access and civil rights that have been so prominent in Arizona, Florida, and Georgia make sense–the old order is indeed crumbling, and those who have reaped its benefits are determined not to surrender them without a fight. In those states and others, the NAACP lists several common tactics:
1 )Tighter restrictions on voter registration drives, such as the extreme penalties imposed in some states for getting registration details wrong or failing to return petitions in a very narrow window of time.
2 ) Greater limitations on where and when citizens can register to vote. State legislatures have moved to shut down “same day registration,” which allows citizens to register and cast a ballot at the same time. Other states have simply never complied with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which required state public assistance agencies to provide voter registration services. “Public assistance agencies” doesn’t just mean “welfare agencies”–it includes motor vehicle and drivers’ license bureaus.
3) Stricter laws about proof of eligibility, such as demanding “proof of citizenship.” Many older African-Americans were born at home and never had a birth certificate, thus cannot “prove” they are citizens. Another way in which white Republicans are limiting the right to vote is by instituting longer residency requirements. This has a heavier impact on non-whites, who, since they are less likely to own their own homes, move more frequently than whites.
4 )Some states are reversing more liberal policies about re-enfranchising ex-felons, which has, according to the NAACP, removed “hundreds of thousands” of–primarily non-white–voters from the rolls. This has been most egregious in Florida, whichis one of the states teetering on the brink of being “majority-minority,” while Iowa has some of the strictest anti-drug laws in the country.
5) States are purging voters from the voter rolls on the allegation that they are dead, have moved out of the district, or are felons, when in fact they may merely have the same name as such a person. Frequently, those purged are not notified and only find out they have been erroneously disqualified when they show up to vote. According to the NAACP “in Florida, a flawed purge program erroneously flagged and purged 12,000 voters (mostly due to typos and other obvious clerical errors). Over 70% of those flagged voters were African-American or Latino.”
6) Many states have substantially reduced the days and hours when early voting is allowed. Since people of color are more likely than whites to be working jobs that will not allow them to take time off to go to the polls for a Tuesday election, this has a disproportionate impact on non-white, low-income voters, who are likely to favor candidates espousing more liberal social policies–i.e., candidates who are not Republicans.
7) Many states have passed laws requiring voters to present a photo ID. According to the NAACP’s report, “Eleven percent of U.S. citizens nationwide—approximately 22.9 million people—do not have government-issued photo IDs. Twenty-five percent of African-American voting-age citizens (over six million people) and 16% of Latino voting-age citizens (nearly three million people) do not possess valid government-issued photo ID. ” Note that the average is one in ten, but among African-Americans, it’s one in four. When you factor in the one out of every eight African-American men who can’t vote because of a felony conviction (and granted there’s some overlap), the trend gets kind of obvious, doesn’t it?
And why is this happening? Proponents of tighter restrictions on voter eligibility blow a lot of hot air about “voter fraud,” but even their best efforts have turned up only an insignificant number of unqualified people attempting to vote, certainly not enough in any district to actually influence an election, and most cases are due to clerical error or misunderstanding. On the other hand, advocates of stricter voter ID laws in South Carolina were honest, or foolish, enough to come out and say, according to the NAACP’s well-footnoted document, “that suppression of the African-American vote was ‘why we ‘need [voter ID laws in South Carolina].”
And that wasn’t just an isolated, fringe opinion. The NAACP also quotes American Legislative Exchange Council founder Paul Weyrich, who said
“our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
This sounds like a job for the U.S. Department of Justice, which has the 1965 Voting Rights Act to use against such blatant racism. But there’s good news and bad news there. The good news is, Section 5 of the Act requires the DOJ to “preclear” any changes in the voting laws in 15 target states that have reputations for discriminating against minorities. That is, the Department of Justice has to OK changes, including redistricting plans, before they can be implemented. The bad news is, that only applies to 15 states, while the American Legislative Exchange Council’s henchmen and henchwomen have pushed through restrictive legislation in 31 states. The further bad news is that the DOJ’s enforcement of the Voting Rights Act has grown increasingly anemic through the years, and came to a virtual standstill during the Cheney administration. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, under the Obama administration the DOJ has not focused on this area, seemingly preferring the easier pickings of going after medical marijuana providers, while the restricted-voting cabal pushes several cases on the Constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act through the Courts, probably figuring that, if they can persist long enough to get it all the way to the Supremes, that fascist body will grant their petition. The court’s stance has pretty uniformly been “more rights for rich corporations, fewer for the average Joe, or, as George Orwell put it in Animal Farm, “Some animals are more equal than others.”
And, even if the Supreme Court, Inc. doesn’t take the case or decides in favor of the Voting Rights Act, the corporatists will keep on coming, just as they have kept on coming about abortion, climate change denial, and every other issue that might imperil their control or their profits. If you’ve been thinking,” if this is an Apocalypse, where are the zombies?” you need look no further. They Who Cannot Die are in the Republican Party, propelled by the profit motive and dysfunctional belief systems. If it wasn’t so serious, it would be pathetically humorous to watch the Democrats attempting to reason with them. The NAACP’s report concludes with a call to return to the tactics that initially advanced the Civil Rights movement, which, considering the many differences between America 50 years ago and America now, may or may not be effective, especially since corporatism has largely displaced populism in the halls of power. They–no, we–had better gird up our loins. It’s going to be quite a struggle.