By Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
The talk shows are filled with the latest rumor about WikiLeaks and Russian interference in our elections. What was done still remains a mystery. But Republican tricky leaks—the systematic efforts to suppress the vote—are an established fact, and a far greater threat to free elections.
The facts are not in dispute. A recent report by the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty notes that in addition to suffering the most extreme inequality in the industrial world, the U.S. ranks among the lowest for voter participation. Voter registration levels, for example, are 64 percent in the U.S., compared with 91 percent in Canada and the United Kingdom and 99 percent in Japan.
This isn’t an accident. As The New York Times reports, conservatives have openly stated for years that they do better when fewer people vote. In the South under segregation, the power structure used any number of tricks: poll taxes, and special quizzes, intimidation and just plain murder—to keep blacks from voting. Now, Republicans are clear that they must suppress the vote if they are to keep power. As professor Donald Jones stated at a Florida hearing of the National Commission for Voter Justice, “When it comes to the vote, we are in the Second Civil War.”
The National Commission for Voter Justice was launched by RainbowPush early this year to undertake a two-year mission of documenting the status of voting rights in the U.S., educating the public about ongoing threats and inspiring reforms to reaffirm the right to vote. The NCVJ has held hearings in four states—Michigan, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, and produced research from six states.
The NCVJ found that systematic efforts are underway to make voting more difficult in state after state. Voter purging and voter caging is being conducted on a much larger scale since 2016 than is popularly recognized.
In Georgia in 2017, 320,000 voters who had been purged from the voter rolls had to file a lawsuit to regain the right to vote. In Florida, black voters are being purged after being labeled “inactive,” by not responding to a mail request for confirmation of address. The Interstate Crosscheck System, invented by Republican attorneys, is used by 27 states and is estimated to lead to the wrongful purging of hundreds of thousands of voters.
States also work to make voting harder. They limit the days of early voting, reduce the number of polling places, leading to long lines and frustrated voters, and relocate polling places to distant communities.
Georgia is notorious for moving polling sites from black communities to inaccessible locations with poor advance notice. Ex-felons who have served their sentence are still disenfranchised in Florida and other states, and students face more and more barriers designed to keep them from voting.
Republican state legislators have pushed to pass voter ID laws across the country; 34 states now enforce these laws. Eleven percent of U.S. citizens—21 million people—lack a governmental issued photo ID, the ACLU reports. One in four African-Americans lacks this form of ID. The Government Accountability Office found that strict photo ID laws reduce turnout by two to three percent.
Open voter suppression laws had a far greater effect on the 2016 election than whatever the Russians did. Wisconsin’s right-wing Gov. Scott Walker had previously signed into law new voter ID requirements, some of which a Federal District Court had found discriminated against minority voters.
Conservative judges at the appellate level upheld the law.
Republicans openly bragged that this would make the difference in the election. The result, by the state’s own records, was that 300,000 eligible voters lacked the proper ID. African-American turnout was down dramatically and Hillary Clinton lost the key state by only 22,700 votes.
We should take steps to ensure that no foreign power can interfere with our elections, but we should also act boldly to ensure that the right to vote is not undermined by zealous partisans at home. Voter registration should be automatic. Voting should be facilitated, not made harder. Early voting days should be extended; polling booths easily available; hours extended. No one should have to wait for hours in a line to cast a vote.
In the end, we should amend the Constitution to specifically establish the right to vote.
This basic democratic value is now contested. We have public officials openly bragging about their schemes to suppress the right to vote. There is no greater threat to a democracy. Now it is up to patriots to defend the most basic right of all.