OPINION — I admit that voting is and has always been a celebratory ritual for me, even if the candidate is running unopposed, the office is state agriculture commissioner or my district’s makeup means my one vote won’t make much of a difference.
I watched three older siblings march for civil rights, and I am well aware that many brave folks died protecting my right to cast that ballot. While a little rain or a busy schedule might provide an excuse to “sit this one out,” it’s never enough to outweigh the legacy left by a Medgar Evers, who served his country in World War II and was murdered in front of his Mississippi home for, among other civil rights activity, leading voter registration drives in the country he protected.
Mine is not a controversial stand — in fact, it’s patriotic. You would think our country’s leaders, without regard to party or politics, would be on my side.
You would be wrong.
When Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in 2013 wrote the majority opinion gutting key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — those that compelled certain states to “preclear” any changes in their voting rules — he insisted that so much had changed in the country that those rules were no longer needed. “The Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.”
Racism is dead, or on its last legs, he seemed to declare.
I would not call Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent cynical. It was realistic. As she wrote: “As the record for the 2006 reauthorization makes abundantly clear, second-generation barriers to minority voting rights have emerged in the covered jurisdictions as attempted substitutes for the first-generation barriers that originally triggered preclearance in those jurisdictions.”
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In a perfect country, politicians would rejoice at the chance to win the hearts and minds of constituents with strong policies, to show how inclusive their party’s big tent could be.
But we are not living in Oz, no matter how much the judges who joined Roberts in the majority decision might have wished.
As Ginsburg predicted, the poll taxes, literary tests and lynchings may have disappeared. But the intent remained in full force. The 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling was a green light for the shenanigans the federal government once prevented states from pulling: moving of polling places; strict ID restrictions targeting minorities, the poor, the elderly and the young; same-day registrations that made voting easier for those working two and three job; purges of voting lists and more.
The list was limited only by the imaginations of those making it. And boy, did the folks who wanted to choose their voters, instead of letting their voters choose them, have great imaginations.
These new tactics are in bold view in the midterm elections of 2018, with states still mired in lawsuits over restrictions legislators have justified as a fight against that boogeyman, voter fraud, which every study has proved insignificant.
In North Dakota, the votes of the original Americans, Native Americans, have been disproportionately jeopardized by a ruling that says a street address rather than a post office box on registrations is required in that sparsely populated state.
In North Carolina, a voter ID bill that has been thrown out by the courts for targeting minority voters with “almost surgical precision” may yet rise from the dead if an amendment to the state’s constitution passes.
Georgia is in a category all by itself. Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor, has refused to recuse himself from his day job of secretary of state, which puts him in charge of overseeing elections, including his own. Cozy, wouldn’t you say? Even GOP secretary of state and Kansas gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach, the king of efforts to suppress the vote to fight hordes of supposed illegal voters, has passed his election duties over to a deputy.
Kemp is running against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who could become the first African-American woman elected governor in this country. What some see as evidence of how far America has come, others see as reason for a second civil war, this time on voting rights.
Georgia election officials have been accused of tossing out a disproportionate number of absentee ballots from minority voters, and holding up close to 53,000 voter registrations because they do not satisfy a controversial “exact match” requirement with all other government documents. (An errant hyphen or period might be the culprit.) A county official kicked black senior citizens off a bus that was heading to the polls, as if those senior citizens had not already heard enough government officials tell them “no.”
What side is the president on? “All levels of government and Law Enforcement are watching carefully for VOTER FRAUD, including during EARLY VOTING,” Trump tweeted. “Cheat at your own peril. Violators will be subject to maximum penalties, both civil and criminal!”
Not exactly an invitation — more like a warning and a threat. It’s no surprise from a president who insisted the 3 million votes that gave Hillary Clinton a popular vote win in 2016 were the result of illegal voters and fraud.
His administration’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, with Kobach front and center, charged with tracking down those voters, I suspect was disbanded for lack of evidence and because state election officials turned their bipartisan backs on requests for intrusive voting records.
The integrity and the results of the elections coming up in two weeks could be called into question because of the fruits of that Supreme Court decision. The country is facing the prospect of having an election with results that few trust, to be decided at a later date.
All these conflicts will have repercussions long after the midterms — resentments and accusations and an America more divided than ever, sowing more distrust in institutions, this time not law enforcement or the media, but democracy itself.
I wish, for his family and our country’s sake, that Medgar Evers were alive, though his spirit and resolve live on in the work of many. There is still so much work to do.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.