By Derrick Johnson (Interim President and CEO, NAACP)
We all know the power of the vote.
One person, one vote serves as the basic ethos and measurement of any democratic nation. Without true voter protection, integrity and universal access, America’s light on the hill dims.
Since Shelby V. Holder dismantled the Voting Rights Act, many southern states with a history of voter suppression and related oppression of Black communities, could once again enact laws that would attempt to manipulate the sole entity which made all Americans equal: the vote.
During the Presidential election of 2016, the first in 50 years without full protection of the VRA, six of the 14 states implementing restrictive voter laws were previously covered by Section 5 of the VRA. Additionally, five of those states—Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina, Alabama and Virginia—put in place new voter ID laws.
Since 2010, twenty states have placed additional obstacles to the ballot box and according to the Brennan Center for Justice, “states most likely to pass new voting restrictions were those with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, those with the highest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, and/or those formerly covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”
In 1858, when running for the U.S. Senate from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln said:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other…”
Lincoln would go on to lose that election to Stephen A. Douglas, but the words he uttered would last the test of time. Today, we ask the same question: Can a nation half-slave and half-free continue?
It’s the same question athletes like Colin Kaepernick ask when they are singled out for freedom, yet their brothers remain in chains. If the vote is actively suppressed in communities of color and poor communities, are we really free or just half-free?
Sometimes history will repeat itself, if we give it enough time and a little help.
What is the difference between our present partial believers in democracy, who callously promote gerrymandering, mischievous voter ID laws, poll moving and poll closing or voter purges, and those who engineered the post-Reconstruction elimination of Black Power in the South?
During the first post-Civil War election in which Blacks could vote, they provided 700,000 votes to help elect Ulysses S. Grant to the White House in 1868. The often-untold secret is that before the Civil Rights Era, where Black voters in the South once again sought out the ballot box in greater numbers, we stood ready at the first opportunity to use the vote, when treated as free people. At that time, and clearly to some today who seek to suppress the vote, this was not acceptable.
During the 1898 constitutional convention in Louisiana, Thomas J. Semmes, chair of the Judiciary Committee of the Convention and former president of the American Bar Association said, “We (meet) here to establish the supremacy of the White race, and the White race constitutes the Democratic Party of this State. The Convention of 1898 interpreted its mandate from the people to be, to disenfranchise as many Negroes and as few Whites as possible.”
This process was replicated throughout the South as Andrew L. Shapiro points out in his Yale Law Journal article, “Challenging Criminal Disenfranchisement Under the Voting Rights Act: A New Strategy” (1993). He highlights how Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 became a prototype for implementing constitutional provisions designed to disenfranchise those individuals, who committed “certain crimes, which Blacks were supposedly more likely than Whites to commit.”
This meant that, “the law removed the vote from those convicted of such ‘furtive offenses’ as burglary, theft, arson, obtaining money under false pretenses, but the ‘robust crimes of Whites,’ which included robbery and murder or ‘crimes in which violence was the principal ingredient,’ were not.”
Today, we know the impact of felony disenfranchisement and the role it plays in keeping millions of individuals, who have served their time, from being able to vote.
The end result of these post-Reconstruction constitutional conventions, which suppressed the vote through legal and often terroristic means and the Black Codes, was that, in states like Mississippi, the number of eligible Black voters registered dropped from 70 percent in 1867 to less than 6 percent in 1892. In Louisiana, Blacks made up over 44 percent of the electorate after the Civil War, but less than 1 percent after 1920.
This is the ugly history of voter suppression, where those who often drape themselves in patriotic rhetoric and colors, also wear the millions of stolen and suppressed votes around their necks like rotting, white albatrosses of political expediency, while keeping their foot solidly on the throat of true democracy, which remains handcuffed and unable to breathe.
It would be great if we could solely discuss our nation’s affair with voter suppression in some historical context with little to no impact on our current nation’s politics. Yet, regardless of how idealistic we are in believing that we can make democracy real for all people, we know, in our hearts, it is not.
Last year, the NAACP won nine major federal cases, critically confronting all manners of ugly, unconstitutional voter suppression, including voter purging, intimidation, and misinformation. In North Carolina, our state conference saved nearly five percent of the electorate when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the state legislature had enacted discriminatory voting laws that intentionally targeted and disenfranchised Black voters.
The NAACP continues to take on legal battles against the newest generation of voter suppression models being implemented through bottle-necked voting districts in Virginia, partisan gerrymandering in Texas or North Carolina that intentionally target and severely dilute not only the vote of African Americans, but also Latino populations.
In Indiana, our state conference recently sued the Secretary of State Connie Lawson, who is a member of the Pence-Kobach Commission, to prevent her from turning over personal voter information and to also prevent the her from using the allegedly discriminatory and inaccurate “Cross Check” system as a means of purging voters.
In Texas, the NAACP has also been successful in challenging racially-biased and unfair redistricting plans and recently won a voter ID case, where more than 600,000 individuals were disenfranchised by the law. We also saved 608,470 votes with a victorious decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
In states like Georgia, our state conference is challenging a law that allows voting lists to be purged simply due to failure to vote and in Ohio we are supporting the A. Phillip Randolph Institute et al, in their case, which, like Georgia, seeks to remove people from the voting rolls, due to their inability or failure to vote.
Oftentimes, the flashier issues and nonstop, highly visible attacks against the foundation of our nation’s values take our minds off of the critical bread and butter issue that without which there is no true democracy—the vote.
We cannot sleep through this period of time, and through all means necessary, we must #StayWoke.