Emma Goldman once said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Today we are seeing the biggest wave of voter suppression since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed nearly 50 years ago. In some ways, the issue of voting rights for black folks, seniors, students, poor people, gender non-conforming people, and immigrants is similar today to what it was then.
The battle over voting rights has never been just about the vote itself, but the power of what it means to have that right to vote or the power of what it means to take that right away from certain people. The right-wing’s current efforts to restrict the vote, specifically through Voter ID bills, redistricting, registration restrictions, and residency requirements (collectively known as voter suppression) are part of a renewed effort to undo the wins secured by the African-American community in the 1960s. In a display of its power, the Right has tapped into the resentment and fear felt by some white voters and is urging these voters to “take back our country.” From whom and why, one wonders?
In our state, the recently upheld racist Voter ID bill has been championed by Gov. Nikki Haley, a woman of color. And whenever the governor’s name is uttered, a dear friend of mine is quick to note that, like Esther of the Bible, Haley has forgotten who she is. Perhaps she has forgotten; perhaps she never knew. Either way, as a woman of color, Haley does not represent the best interests of black, brown, working-class, and female South Carolinians, and she is more than willing to build her political career on the backs of our communities.
But regardless of who is enacting it, voter suppression itself is a well-practiced strategy of the Right. No one explains the logic behind it more clearly than the right-wingers themselves. In the 1980s, the late ultra-conservative strategist Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which provided the model legislation for the Voter ID bills, proclaimed, “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Thirty years after this nugget of wisdom and 50 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, voter suppression remains a tactical effort by the Right to maintain its economic and political power, both symbolically and on Election Day.
Why is voter suppression surging right now? One clear answer is that Republicans are pulling out all the stops to prevent Obama’s re-election, including targeting two of his key voting blocs, people of color and young people. Obama’s election in 2008 was a clear win for progressives, the black community, working-class people, and young people. Like the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Obama’s historic victory signaled to the Right in big neon letters that if it intended to maintain or gain ground, it would need to quickly re-organize itself, hence the backlash and new extremes we are seeing today. Suppressing the vote is just one of many ways in which the Right has been scrambling to maintain power. The tactic is additionally powerful in that it is common ground for Republicans and Tea Party fanatics alike, an agreement visible in our governor’s reactionary politics.
The question for those of us who oppose voter suppression and other right-wing efforts to control our lives is “what common ground can we stand on together?” There is too much at stake for our communities in this election and beyond to let the course of our struggle for democracy be derailed without a fight. We must stand together to further a vision of true participatory democracy, not in another four years, not in another 50 years, but now.