A strategic campaign to deny voting rights to African Americans and Latinos is well underway, according to a report issued Monday by the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The report, “Defending Democracy,” finds evidence of a coordinated movement to undo the political gains of the 2008 election and reverse the nation’s half-century of voting-rights progress. The block-the-vote effort, funded by wealthy conservatives, includes more than 40 different legislative proposals and involves millions of dollars. The report’s sponsors say the document is intended not only to alert and inform voters but also to call them to action. In a joint statement, both groups urged their supporters to join them in a “quest to preserve and protect” voting rights for all Americans.
After Obama’s thunderous victory provided a dazzling display of multicultural ballot-box power, oppositional forces began working to return the electoral atmosphere to its pre-Civil Rights depths. If they succeed, the impact of voting would be drastically diminished and corporations and their allies would gain even more freedom to operate outside the limits of government. In this context, the block-the-vote campaign can be seen as a dry run for an entirely new form of sovereignty. The shift from citizen-powered democracy would enable the rise of a new type of political animal that the New York Times has dubbed “the policy-making billionaire.” Whereas some tycoons have asserted their policy-making impulse via aggressive philanthropic projects in such areas as job training and public health initiatives, others have pointed their wallets toward schemes designed to undermine the very infrastructure of our republic. Of the latter, the most active are David and Charles Koch, billionaire heads of Koch Industries. In addition to running the nation’s largest privately held company, the Koch brothers have funneled millions into think tanks, the Tea Party and other groups animated by a virulent distaste for justice, compassion and equal opportunity.
In eloquent prose bolstered by judiciously chosen research, “Defending Democracy” urges progressive-minded Americans to act now before it’s too late. Their success depends on generating sufficient momentum to overcome an opponent that is already off and running. It also requires a far-reaching plan that is both future-oriented and sensitive to the lessons of the past.
Roots of Repression
As the report notes, the struggle for fairness and full equality has been “characterized by expansion often followed by swift contraction.” Prior to the Civil War, the Dred Scott decision appeared to settle the question of black citizenship once and for all. Supreme Court chief justice Roger B. Taney, speaking for the majority, wrote that Negro equality was “incompatible with the Constitution,” leaving blacks with “no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” Despite more than a century of struggle aimed at destroying the legacy of Scott, Taney’s damning idea continues to resonate.
After the Civil War, attempts to dismantle the legislative advances of Reconstruction were extensive and successful, prompting W.E.B. DuBois to soberly reflect, “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” During the period between Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enemies of freedom have strived to counter every significant advance with an equal and opposite push backward. Opposition to black rights, while never the sole obsession of a particular faction or party, has been as steadfast and unrelenting as the national faith in free markets and manifest destiny.
New Era, New Tactics
In previous decades, opponents could freely employ poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, intimidation and lynching as weapons to prevent minorities from voting. The modern era’s discouragement of overt racism requires the use of cunning, more insidious maneuvers. The most chilling passages in “Defending Democracy” are those providing details of the new tactics.
According to the report, the block-the-vote operations target states in which minority voters have demonstrated significant influence or where Census figures indicate substantial population growth among communities of color. Attacks on voting rights include proposals to enact photo-ID requirements (bills have been introduced in 34 states), attempts to challenge the core protections of the Voting Rights Act, efforts to curtail or eliminate early voting, absentee ballots and voter-registration campaigns, and enacting laws denying felons the right to vote.
Unsurprisingly, each of those measures disproportionately affects black and Latino voters—and not by accident. “Defending Democracy” traces many of these efforts to legislation drafted by the conservative group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The report quotes the founder of ALEC explaining, “our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Clearly, the 2008 presidential election provided a motivating spark for ALEC and its cohorts. As the New York Times recently noted, in 2008 Obama “won in places where no Democrat had won in a while, including Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and Colorado. And he won in quite a few states that Democrats cannot traditionally rely on, like Florida and Ohio.” Less than a week after the Times report, the Associated Press noted, “Efforts to restrict early voting have been approved in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin.” Its unpatriotic ideology aside, the movement apparently conceals a method behind its madness.
And money, too. Lots of it.
A slippery, shapeless entity with countless tentacles extending into such disparate worlds as health-care, politics, business deregulation and environmental concerns sounds like something out of a space movie or a spy novel. But Koch Industries’ long, powerful reach more than proves that reality is often stranger than fiction. With resources in the billions stemming from Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups and other products, the Koch brothers use their money to steamroll anybody—or any government—that dares to stand in their way. According to Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, the Kochs “have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.”
The Kochs carry out their schemes through a variety of innocent-sounding front groups. A partial list includes the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the Institute for Justice, the Institute for Humane Studies, the Bill of Rights Institute, the Cato Institute, the Independent Women’s Forum, the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Citizens for the Environment and Patients United Now. According to Mayer, “Americans for Prosperity, in concert with the family’s other organizations, has been instrumental in disrupting the Obama Presidency.” What could be more disruptive than preventing millions of potential supporters from casting their ballots in the next presidential election?
Battling Back: The Struggle Continues
In the past, Democrats have been as active as Republicans in keeping blacks and other minorities from the ballot box. During the years since Bush v. Gore, however, efforts at disfranchisement have acquired a distinct right-wing aura. Obama’s presence in the White House seems to have intensified their exertions.
Their activities haven’t escaped notice. Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz heads the Democratic National Committee. She told the Associated Press, “we’re aggressively engaged in making sure that we help voters move these obstacles and barriers that are being put in their way that are essentially designed to rig an election when Republicans can’t win these elections on the merits.”
The right’s frenzied movement echoes the feverish resistance that Southern states mounted against activists during the Fifties and Sixties. And the tactics remain dishearteningly similar. Consider civil-rights hero John Lewis’s description of Selma, Ala., in 1955. He told National Public Radio, “In Selma, you could only attempt to register to vote on the first and third Mondays of each month. You had to go down to the courthouse and get a copy of the so-called literacy test and attempt to pass the test. And people stood in line day in and day out failing to get a copy of the test or failing to pass the test.”
In Lewis’ view, the subsequent protests that he and others organized “created a sense of righteous indignation among the American people.”
“Defending Democracy” calls for a similar activist spirit. The report recommends “employing all available tools and advocacy techniques from litigation and political action, to grassroots organizing.” Other suggestions include spreading the word about block-the-vote campaigns to friends and neighbors, expressing dissatisfaction to elected representatives, volunteering at the polls and joining a march for freedom in New York on Dec. 10. Progressives believe that only a forceful, concerted effort can protect the freedoms guaranteed by the Voting Rights Act, a document already regarded as fragile by some observers on the left and right. When signing that tide-changing legislation on Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson observed, "The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men."
Few have been as dedicated to rebuilding those terrible walls as the forces currently arrayed against voting rights. As “Defending Democracy” makes clear, to remain silent and do nothing would be the same as handing them the bricks and mortar.
Jabari Asim is Editor-in-Chief of The Crisis magazine, the NAACP’s flagship publication.