Attack on voting rights has a deja vu vibe
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I'm beginning to wonder if there's anything more constant in American history than voter suppression.
When America was a British colony, people had only a limited say in their own affairs. They were at the mercy of edicts and taxes levied from across the sea.
While there was no doubt among those colonists muttering darkly about revolution that taxation without representation was tyranny, many other colonists were fine with the status quo. Although the "autonomy" they insisted all colonists enjoyed as subjects of the King of England was an illusion, they argued strenuously for the right to be ruled by their sovereign across the sea.
But a revolution came and swept the British garrisons from the land. The most powerful navy in the world withdrew from the waters of its mutinous colony. The victorious revolutionaries moved quickly to consolidate their power by enshrining Enlightenment ideas of self-government and democracy in their Constitution, the most high-minded document in world history to that point.
The landed gentry, military commanders and merchants who filled the void left by the British didn't want to repeat the mistakes that had made life in Europe intolerable for those who immigrated to the New World, but nor were they interested in sharing power with those who bore the brunt of the fighting and the dying.
There would eventually be elections, they promised, but the franchise would be limited to those who had a direct stake in the complicated matters of government and commerce -- white male property owners. These paragons of virtue could always be counted on to look out for the best interests of the people.
Of course, those who were not white male property owners bristled at the notion that the rich and the powerful had their best interests at heart. Contrary to Enlightenment ideals, slavery didn't disappear from the land. Substantial numbers of white land owners in the South considered human bondage an indispensable part of their happiness and ability to make a profit. Both free and enslaved blacks were denied access to the polls because their interest in freedom ran counter to the interests of the slave owners.
Women also were denied the right to vote because their gender was seen as an impediment to the judgment needed to pursue their interests. White males who didn't own property were as marginalized as women, but not quite as vulnerable to the vagaries of the law as slaves and free blacks.
This was pretty much the status quo, give or take modifications around the edges, until the Civil War liberated millions of blacks from human bondage and the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 gave women the vote. There was a brief period called Reconstruction that saw blacks entering politics and voting in unprecedented numbers in the South, but that experiment in democratic access ended in the 1890s.
In the South, Democratic state legislatures imposed poll taxes and literacy tests to whittle the number of black voters to a trickle. Those who went to the trouble of memorizing state constitutions to recite as a condition for voting might receive a visit from the Klan after casting their ballot. Terror was an inextricable part of the voting process for blacks and immigrants for generations.
Of course, these efforts were never couched in terms of disenfranchising whole classes and categories of people. In America, voter suppression is always about "ensuring the integrity of the ballot box." The fact that most blacks in the South were effectively kept from voting until the 1960s doesn't embarrass proponents of modern-day voter suppression who insist they only want to keep felons and illegal aliens from voting.
After all, very few citizens, including those engaged in depriving others of the opportunity to vote, realize that full voter enfranchisement isn't even 50 years old. For most of our history, those in power have been "ensuring the integrity of the vote" at the expense of democracy.
The Department of Justice is challenging voter suppression laws enacted across the country since 2010, when elections increased Republicans' control of governors mansions and state legislatures. Republicans argue that our democracy is in danger of being overrun by "rogue" voters who are gaming the system on behalf of Democrats.
More stringent voter ID requirements may discourage millions from voting, but that's OK. Our leaders can always be counted on to look out for the best interests of the people.
First Published June 8, 2012 12:00 am