"The past is never dead. It's not even past."- Gavin Stevens, a character in Requiem for a Nun, Act 1, Scene 3, by William Faulkner
[I used this post as the concluding entry at Old Hickory's Weblog in my 2008 version of my annual counter-celebration of Confederate "Heritage" Month.]
Sadly, we have an all-too-current issue of the triumph of segregationist values that grew from the Lost Cause outlook and the practices of the segregated South after the "Redeemers" overthrew the democratic Reconstruction governments in the South by force and violence.
A Supreme Court decision this week green-lighted a core segregationist practice: voter suppression. The decision came in the case of Crawford vs. Marion County Election Board, which upheld an Indiana law requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls. The Indiana law is one of the successes of the Republican voter suppression efforts, a widespread practice that comes straight out of the playbook of the Old South segregationists. To be regionally fair, the future Chief Justice William Rehnquist was also a practitioner of the method in the 1960s in Arizona.
The most exotic features of the Jim Crow segregation system were things like the whites-only water fountains and bathrooms in public places. But the core of the system, going back to the the overthrow by the so-called "Redeemers" of the democratic Reconstruction governments by force and violence and intimidation in the 1870s, was voter suppression. Through a combination of terrorism and legal subterfuges, African-American voters were prevented from registering and voting.
During the 1960s, one of the most popular methods of doing so was the poll tax, which effectively disenfranchised most black citizens and a significant number of poor whites. It took a Constitutional Amendment to get rid of that practice, although the Republicans are seeking today to institute some backdoor version of the poll tax.
A popular method in Mississippi was to require a voter to give a written interpretation of a section of the state constitution which had to be judged adequate by the county registrar of voters before the voter could register. It turned out that most black applicants just couldn't give an adequate interpretation in the opinions of the registrars, who weren't exactly legal scholars themselves in most cases. The registrars would sometimes be helpful, though, and give the person registering a text to copy which would be acceptable. Although rarely if ever were black applicants given such assistance.
I'm once again struck by this week's coverage of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright by the deeply warped priorities of the Establishment press. Not only are the views of the African-American minister Wright treated in tabloid style and dissected gleefully by pundits who know bupkis about theology or the African-American religious traditions, while the outrageous religious views of Christian Right leaders are treated as a normal thing. But in a week where the Republican Supreme Court issued a ruling validating one of the most serious anti-democratic practices in the country today, media hysteria over the Rev. Wright gets far and away more priority than this very serious setback for American democracy.
Most white Americans of all regions of the country probably tell ourselves in one way or another that we would never tolerate something like that awful Jim Crow system that those backward white Southerners of yesteryear practice. But the truth is that our powdered princes and princesses of the Establishment media mostly don't give a rat's petootie about this new ruling. Sneering at that scary black minister from Chicago is just so-ooo much more entertaining for those supposed guardians of our democracy.
Art Levine provides a good description of the rotten Republican scheme in The Republican War on VotingThe American Prospect 04/01/08, in which he writes:
The roots of John Ashcroft's passion on this issue go back to the chaos of Election Day 2000 in St. Louis, when hundreds, if not thousands, of mostly inner-city voters were turned away from polling places because their names were not on voting rolls. The resulting last-minute court battle kept some polling places open for 45 minutes after their scheduled closing time of 7 P.M. Ashcroft, then the Republican U.S. Senate nominee, lost his race to the dead Democratic governor, Mel Carnahan, whose name stayed on the ballot weeks after he died in a plane crash. At an election-night party, an infuriated Republican Sen. Kit Bond pounded the podium and screamed, "This is an outrage!" - and subsequently charged that Republican losses were due in part to dogs and dead people voting. As one local government official observed, "In St. Louis, 'dogs and dead people' is code for black people [voting fraudulently]."
That election night gave birth to the new right-wing voter-fraud movement, while Missouri became a proving ground for the vote-suppression campaigns that later spread to other key states. Missouri's then-Secretary of State Matt Blunt, now governor, launched a trumped-up investigation that concluded that more than 1,000 fraudulent ballots had been cast in an organized scheme. A Justice Department Civil Rights Division investigation, started before Ashcroft shifted the department's priorities, found no fraudulent ballots, however. Instead, it discovered that the St. Louis election board had improperly purged 50,000 voters from the rolls.
Nonetheless, the template for smear campaigns, groundless lawsuits, and politicized prosecutions used across the country had been set in Missouri. Key roles were played by many of the same GOP zealots who later made their mark on the national drive to fight voter fraud, among them St. Louis attorney Thor Hearne, the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign election counsel who later launched the GOP front group, the American Center for Voting Rights (ACVR). And as early as 2002, the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party pioneered a new dirty trick: publicly "filing" with the Federal Election Commission a 26-page complaint against the state's leading registration group, known as Pro Vote, that charged it with secretly conspiring with Democrats in the Senate race - but then failing to sign the document so the agency never considered it.
Digby comments on this awful decision in Validating Voter Suppression Hullabaloo blog 04/28/08. Her comments are, as usual, on point when she explains the significance of this:
First of all, let's not forget that this may be the biggest political land mine the Bush administration has set for Democrats. "Voter fraud" was, you'll remember, at the bottom of the US Attorney scandals and one of their main tools for suppressing the Democratic vote. This is the realization of a very long term plan to chip away at the Voting Rights Act. Republicans, like all aristocrats, know that if enough average people vote, they will lose. Period.
I have been writing about this since before I started this blog. It's at the heart of the Florida debacle in 2000, where they illegitimately purged voter rolls and relied on arcane interpretations of the rules to deny people the fundamental right to have their votes counted. It goes all the way back to the reconstruction period and has continued right up to Ohio in 2004.
The Supreme Court has just legitimized the notion that "voter fraud" is a problem when, in fact, every study shows that it simply does not exist in any systematic way and that the voter disenfranchisement that results from such laws is a far more serious problem.
That's what this is about. It's the victory of a basic, basic practice of the segregation system. This segregationist measure is aimed at suppressing African-American and Latino voters. Digby:
It's important to remember that the thrust of many of these latest laws are to suppress the Latino vote, many of whom are reluctant to show up at polling places only to be treated like second class citizens and viewed with suspicion. Life is short. The same, of course, holds true for African Americans, even today. Simply slowing the lines with demands for proof of ID is enough to suppress the votes in urban precincts with too few voting machines. And then there are the handicapped and elderly who often just don't have the same type of ID as the rest of us. But then that's the point. These people must be made to jump through hoops in order to exercise their right to vote.
Oh wait. That's not quite right, is it? After all it was none other than the majority in Bush vs Gore who made it a point to reaffirm that "the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States."
Perhaps we ought to change that.
As the news articles and various bloggers have noted, the Crawford vs. Marion County Election Board decision isn't a complete capitulation to the Indiana-type voter suppression law. It was a 5-4 decision that refused to strike down the voter-suppression law. Three of the majority Justice - Thomas, Scalia and Alito - took the straight-up segregationist position that it was valid on the face of it for the a state to pass such a law despite the complete absence of evidence that the "voter fraud" it was nominally aimed at preventing was actually occurring in the state. The actual decision was on the more narrow grounds that the opponents of the law hadn't demonstrated an actual instance of the law violating someone's voting rights. That was bad enough. But the majority decision does leave open the possibility of challenging the law on other grounds, including demonstration of actual violation of rights.
Jack Balkin weighs in on the decision at his Balkiniization blog in Facial ID's, Facial Challenges and In Your Face Politics 04/28/08. He notes the partisan continuity between the pro-Republican decision in Crawford and the pro-Republican decision by the Scalia Five in the infamous Bush v. Gore decision in 2000.
Andrew Malcolm in GOP, Dems split over Supreme Court OK of Indiana voter ID law. More to come? Top of the Ticket blog 04/28/08 essentially makes a "nothing to see here, move along" defense of the ruling. Malcolm is an editor for the Los Angeles Times who served as Laura Bush's press secretary for 1999-2000. His post is a snarky take that apparently finds it amusing that Democrats should object to such a ruling.
The spirit of the Lost Cause is alive and well. And actively at working damaging American democracy.