Columnist: Dark Clouds of Yesteryear Return to Threaten Right to Vote

One of my thrills as a young political writer was to trace the long and arduous -- yet eventually victorious -- struggle to assure the right to vote for all Americans.

I was working on a book about the Electoral College and all the formulas for tallying votes and electing a president that had been proposed over the years. Suddenly I realized that the varieties of compromises then so widely discussed -- such as dividing states' electoral votes by district, or proportionately reflecting vote counts by state -- wouldn't do. Only a simple, direct, equal vote for all Americans, I concluded, would match the promise of a mature, fully shared American democracy. All votes equal. "The People's President," I titled my book.

But it was clear, checking history, that the American experiment had started a very different way. When the Constitution was written, only propertied "freeholders" could vote -- an injustice not fully corrected (and then only for white males) in the 1820s. Women were denied ballots until the suffragist movement culminated in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (1920). Youth between 18 and 21 could fight for their country but not vote until the 26th Amendment (1971).

But the true, deep divide was our history of slavery in America. For African-Americans, the struggle to vote, even after the Civil War, was painstakingly slow, each advance fiercely resisted by the states of the old Confederacy.

The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, did forbid state or local governments from denying citizens' right to vote based on their "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." But the Southern states resisted incessantly through decades of lynchings, Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, stacked literacy tests and white-only primaries.

Only the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, capped off by the broad federally enforced protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, finally brought justice. "The arc of the moral universe," Martin Luther King Jr. could assert, "is long, but it bends toward justice."

Yet today that justice -- the right of free and full access to the ballot box for Americans, regardless of race, class, wealth or status -- is again in doubt.

Almost immediately after the Supreme Court's recent decision gutting major portions of the Voting Rights Act, six states of the old Confederacy -- Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina and Virginia -- moved quickly to impose voter photo ID and other restrictive voting requirements to which the Justice Department had taken exception.

The argument for voter IDs is that states must guard against impersonation and other flagrant voter fraud. But repeated studies show those offenses are so minuscule that they border on the nonexistent. The real reason for the new voter ID laws is no mystery. It's a deliberate effort to reduce voting by minorities, students and low-income citizens -- constituencies deemed likely to vote for liberal candidates.

Today's voter suppression effort originated with ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), an organization backed by the billionaire Koch brothers and major corporate interests. And now it's being pushed by a Republican Party that seems turned 180 degrees from its 19th-century birth as the agent of liberty and the franchise for African-Americans.
Alarmingly, I see the historic march to a liberated, rights-for-all voting order in America that inspired so many of us in the civil rights era being deliberately sabotaged for partisan, economic and ideological motives.

Sadly, I've also seen the Supreme Court I so admired in the Earl Warren era use its powers to undermine, not undergird American democracy. A prime example was the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision that denied a recount of the razor-thin Florida presidential vote result. That decision, delivering the presidency to the national popular vote loser, George W. Bush, brought, in time, the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the court. Their votes, in turn, paved the way to the infamous Citizens United decision subjecting America to uncontrolled, unreported floods of corporate dollars in elections. And now to the Shelby County v. Holder decision that eviscerates the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the crown legislative jewel of America's long-delayed, desperately needed civil rights Revolution.

In time this trend line will surely be reversed. America's young and growing Hispanic, Asian and African-American populations will all but surely overcome the voting power of a Republican Party based among a white, aging, shrinking segment of the electorate. Today's deniers of votes for minorities will slip away on a fresh demographic tide.

My own first vote for president was for Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nostalgically, I can look back to an America in which there were spirited partisan rivalries but a strong (and growing) bipartisan consensus for fair rules and a broad-based, shared, respect-all America. That's the heritage I believe should be our future. Even today, I believe it will prevail.

Neal Peirce's email address is

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