(The Root) — Republicans have devised an insidious plan to steal the 2012 presidential election, and it's a page torn from the history books about Jim Crow South.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law compiled a comprehensive report showing that 24 new laws and two executive actions restricting the right to vote have passed in 19 states since 2011.The reason? GOP lawmakers claim that the laws are designed to combat voter fraud. But opponents of the laws, including the Justice Department, see them as the disenfranchisement of African-American voters — and covert subversion of the Voting Rights Act — that is central to the GOP's strategy for the 2012 elections. And the concerted effort to fulfill Sen. Mitch McConnell's No. 1 priority of making "Obama a one-term president" is being carried out with military precision.
Perhaps a brief history lesson is in order. After the Civil War and emancipation in 1865, the right of suffrage was broadly exercised by freedmen. During Reconstruction, African-American men achieved high office in state legislatures as well as in the U.S. Congress. But a set of restrictive voting laws — including poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses — quickly reversed progress and led to 100 years of second-class citizenry.
The remnants of this sordid past are still evident in the racial disparities present in our politics. Even today, with an African American in the Oval Office, not one sits in the Senate. The cultural divide that kept the American South solidly red and Republican after the civil rights era was so widely accepted as status quo that no one dared question it.
That was, of course, until November 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama swept Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. He narrowed margins in states like South Carolina — and garnered more of the military vote than had been anticipated, given John McCain's record as a war hero.
The GOP quickly regrouped, perhaps realizing that in order to beat Obama in 2012, they would have to move their "Southern strategy" further north.
First they set their sights on ACORN, a national community organization group responsible for registering 1.3 million new voters in 2008. African Americans, Hispanics, the urban poor and the elderly were ACORN's key constituencies. After being plagued by largely unfounded accusations of voter-registration fraud, the nonprofit was gutted as congressional Republicans denied federal funding. Several supporters of voter-ID laws cite ACORN as their reason.
Next, conservatives took their plan nationwide. Fueling propaganda that millions of Mexican immigrants were draining government health care resources and voting illegally, Republicans pushed for stricter voter laws at the state level and harsher immigration policies. Why? One reason could be that Obama received 76 percent of the Hispanic vote — and a growing coalition of Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans had made the nation's smaller conservative Cuban community less politically relevant.
Abandoning President George W. Bush's more inclusive approach, the Tea Party-influenced GOP assumed that the Latino vote — like the black vote — wasn't worth courting. This is where Ohio and Pennsylvania become so crucially important, since poor and working-class whites make up a significant part of the electorate there.
This base support — normally guaranteed for a Republican candidate — is now a swing set. Obama's successful bailout of the car industry, upon which many Ohio and Pennsylvania manufacturing workers rely, has left him in good standing with independents in these key states. The GOP's strategy to regain that support has been to wage an aggressive anti-Obama campaign: attacking his signature achievement, health care reform, and resorting to race-baiting tactics to make the president appear foreign and outside the mainstream.
New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania are all non-former Confederate states whose legislatures have instituted restrictive voting laws — mirroring the GOP strategy to bypass the Voting Rights Act provisions altogether.
Dan Froomkin, deputy editor for Nieman Watchdog, has derided the failure of mainstream press outlets to call Republican tactics what they are: a deliberate effort to disenfranchise minorities. By attempting to be unbiased, the media allow Republican claims of voter fraud to appear legitimate, and this amounts to journalistic malpractice. Froomkin writes, "Failing to call out the voter ID push is like covering the civil rights movement and treating 'separate but equal' as if it was said with sincerity."
The U.S. Justice Department is charged — under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — with reviewing changes to voter laws in states with a history of discrimination. This process, known as preclearance, oversees much of the American South. Attorney General Eric Holder has used this authority to halt new laws in Texas and Florida, but Northern states like Pennsylvania and Ohio do not fall under the provision. Instead, a case must be made in court and empirical evidence presented.
Enter Viviette Applewhite, a 93-year-old African-American Philadelphia resident who has voted in every election since 1960 but will be disenfranchised by the new laws because she no longer has an original birth certificate or driver's license.
Last week the state of Pennsylvania was forced to admit that no significant instances of voter fraud — the very reason for voter-ID laws, claim supporters — had occurred there. Only 13 cases were reported since 1999, out of 31 million votes cast. In June, Pennsylvania's Republican House leader Mike Turzai revealed what liberals had long suspected: The new laws were purposely designed to suppress votes. In a videotaped speech before the Republican State Committee, he boasted that voter ID is "gonna allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."
Independent studies reveal that the restrictions will affect 9.2 percent of eligible registered voters — roughly 758,939 residents — and that is well above the margin by which Obama won the state against John McCain. Speaking before the NAACP in Houston in July, Holder referred to the voter laws as a "poll tax" and vowed to fight them.
Despite GOP insistence that their efforts are not politically motivated, the racial bias is clear. As many as 25 percent of African Americans lack a government-issued photo ID, compared with 8 percent of whites. Asian Americans and Latinos have equally high numbers, with 20 percent and 19 percent respectively lacking photo identification.
In years past, proof of residence — a bank statement or utility bill — would have sufficed. Indeed, for the elderly and those without cars in urban areas, Social Security cards and birth certificates — which do not bear photos — were the definitive form of ID for generations. Young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 could use student-ID cards to vote — but not anymore.
In Ohio a statewide survey found only four instances of ineligible voting, out of more than 9 million votes cast in 2002 and 2004. This amounts to a ratio of 0.00004 percent — which is statistically negligible and mathematically almost nonexistent. Yet in March, the state's Republican-led House of Representatives passed one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country, which could affect as many as 900,000 Ohioans. In particular, early voting, which has served as a stalwart in African-American communities, was severely limited.
The past doesn't always repeat itself, but it can echo quite loudly in the events of the present. And as the nation's farmlands suffer devastating drought, it seems that Jim Crow has found fertile Northern soil in which to thrive.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on MSNBC, Al-Jazeera, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.