Home > About Us > Thousands protest voter ID laws, drawing comparisons to Jim Crow

Thousands protest voter ID laws, drawing comparisons to Jim Crow

March 23, 2012

A protester holds a sign saying Voter ID equals a poll tax at the civil rights rally on December 10, 2011 in New York.

December 15, 2011

Early on the morning of 10 December, civil rights activists met at the corner of 59th and Madison, just outside the offices of Koch Industries. Organisers gave a few speeches before joining the crowd, estimated at several thousand to later on tens of thousands, to walk southeast towards the United Nations, stopping at Hammarskjold Plaza for a rally, concert and additional speeches.

Some organisers and participants at the rally accused the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch of being involved in efforts to undermine the voting rights of the minorities and the poor in key states, which they argued could cost the democrats dearly in future elections. There were signs in the crowd with phrases like, “Are you on Koch?” and “Welcome to the new and improved racism 2012 edition starring the fabulous Koch brothers.” This protest, unlike some of the recent protests by Occupy Wall Street, had a majority participation by African Americans; there were also significant numbers of Latino, Asian and white participants.

“When they look at the political landscape they know they can only win if they can segregate, steal, suppress and isolate the power and the potential of the black vote and the progressive vote. They are driven by the nightmare of their daddy Freddie Koch rather than the dream of Dr. King,” said Reverend Dr. William Barber, President of the North Carolina State Conference of NAACP, who spoke later in the day near the UN.

Not everyone sees it this way. Supporters of the laws the Koch’s are not being fairly represented in the media and deny involvement on voting ID. “Koch has taken no position on the voter ID issue, which is why these groups are wrong and completely misguided in their false accusations,” said Bill O’Reilly, a spokesman for Koch who spoke to the Associated Press.

People at the rally said the Republican Party, the right wing and others were using racism as a tool to exclude African Americans from voting. “It makes me feel angry, and I’m very disappointed in this country because everybody was supposed to be created equal…so now we have to show the government, show the republicans that we are going to vote,” said Renee Phillips, a long time Brooklyn resident and organizer who marched at the event. She said this was not “1932,” looking back to the time when virtually no African Americans could vote.

A particular bone of discontent among activists is the voter ID requirement, which they say is unnecessary and prevents eligible people from voting. “As long as you’re registered to vote there’s no need for ID,” said Natasha Rudder as she stood with her daughters, one of whom smiled as she held a sign saying, “Voter id = poll tax.” She insisted that the government workers had a variety of tools on hand to verify a person’s identity, and that the meaning of their sign referencing the suppression of African civil rights before the 1960’s was “clear.”

Activists were not the only ones at the rally who expressed sentiments along these lines; prominent politicians joined in as well, though not necessarily using the same terminology. “They say they are trying to protect us from voter fraud. When we asked them where is the fraud, they can’t find any…Brennan has released a report on this. That is a rouse. They don’t want poor people to vote, they don’t want senior citizens to vote, they don’t want people of color to vote,” said Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), who spoke briefly at the rally near the UN.

A man holds a sign while marching in support of voter rights.

Supporters of the voter ID laws say race is not the question, yet they seem to run into trouble when discussing the numbers of those who commit voter fraud. During the period of October 2002 to September 2005, “The government has indicted 95 people, and convicted 70 of them, for federal election related crimes,” wrote the New York Times in an April 2007 article entitled, In 5-year Effort, Scant Evidence of Voter Fraud. The report also describes the tough penalties for people convicted of voter fraud face, including the case of an immigrant who was deported and others who received prison sentences. This and other studies on voter fraud during the Bush years indicate a very low incidence. It is less than 1%. It is a difficult, therefore, to argue that fraud is the motivating factor behind these new laws, argued the Rev. Al Sharpton in a recent television broadcast of his show.

George Gresham, President of 1199 SEIU and speaker at the event, said, “The only fraud that exists is the idea that there is voter fraud.” He went further, directly linking the recent changes to state laws across the country to the pre-Civil Rights era: “You’re not gonna take us back to the days of poll taxes, to the days when people of color did not have the right to vote. You’re not gonna change the game when we get good at the game.” Getting good at the game refers to the higher than usual turnout among African American voters in the 2008 election, many of whom voted for the democrats.

John Payton, President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said at the event that the high voter turnout among minorities and other groups “threatened some other interests in our country. So what we have seen for the last three years are measures designed to make it harder” to vote. Mr. Payton further added, “These changes affected African Americans and Latinos much more than white Americans. That’s a discriminatory impact.” He went on to discuss the new NAACP Legal Defense Fund report, Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America, which describes in detail many of the recently enacted laws across the US. It makes the case that they may disproportionately affect minorities and the poor in upcoming elections.

According to the Advancement Project’s report, What’s Wrong with this Picture?, 21 million Americans do not possess a valid government issued ID. This includes “25 percent of African American voting age citizens – more than 5.5 million people,” the report says. Whilst the impact the new voter ID laws have in the 2012 elections remains to be seen, they may reduce the number of African Americans who meet the requirements to vote.

This is because obtaining proper ID is not as easy as one might think, particularly for the poor, elderly, naturalised or victims of natural disasters. Such circumstances may complicate or prevent some from getting the necessary papers, argues the report. This could mean lower minority turnout in key states, something President Obama cannot afford if he is to win the election. North Carolina is one of those states where a significant number of African Americans do not have government issued ID. The Advancement Project cites over 250,000 without ID, and says that since “President Obama carried the state by than 14,000 votes” in 2008..

Possible Effects on the 2012 Elections

“In North Carolina…in 2008 the media told you President Obama won the state, but in truth he didn’t. He won 37 counties out of 100 state counties.  He lost on Election Day, but won during same day registration, early voting Sunday morning, that had been pushed through by a progressive coalition, Said Rev. William Barber, cited earlier. He went on to argue that changes to the voting laws and redistricting changes would likely prevent President Obama from achieving the same results in 2012.

Karl Rove, former senior adviser to President Bush, seems to agree changes in minority voting could affect future elections. “If their share [African Americans] of the turnout drops just one point in North Carolina, Mr. Obama’s 2008 winning margin there is wiped out two and a half times over,” he said in an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal.

The Rev. Al Sharpton referred to Mr. Rove’s comments on the same MSNBC television show cited earlier saying, “Karl Rove openly wrote about targeting black voter turnout in the Wall Street Journal.” Regarding some of the states where these new laws have been passed, “If you bring down the percentage just based on voter ID or any of the other thing, you wipe out the margin of victory in some critical states for the democrats,” said Sharpton. Mr. Rove, on the other hand, hinges his argument in part to a drop in “approval among younger voters,” and that “African-American voters are less excited” about President Obama, not changes to voting laws. He does not address the notion that republicans are “targeting” minorities in his piece.

However, the main point all three seem to agree on is: any reduction in the number of minority votes cast has the potential to decrease the democrats’ chances of success in the 2012 election, particularly since minorities have traditionally voted for the Democratic.

Concerning the allegation that race plays a role in these new voting laws, the Rev. Dr. Barber called the current and proposed changes a “metamorphis” from Jim Crow to “James Crow Esquire.”

Thousands of people marched and gathered near the UN. This protesters holds a sign towards the press box.

Referring to the support democrats enjoy among African Americans, Rev. Barber explained that, “now James Crow Esq. is trying to undermine” minority participation in the upcoming election “because they know if they if we go to the polls they lose.”

One person at the rally who argued race was a factor in the voting laws is CJ Holm, a white female. Though acknowledging the laws did not directly affect her, she said that as a human being, “it offends me greatly.” She added that her purpose in marching was to express solidarity with any who might lose their suffrage rights.

Some at the rally expressed their sentiments more passionately. “We know that them wanting to take back America meant they wanted to take America back to time when there were no unions…when the rich got constantly got richer and the poor got poorer…women couldn’t vote…black people couldn’t vote. But we got news for you. You been working hard to take America back, but we, the people, are here to take America forward,” said Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, president of the Islamic leadership Council of New York.

Organizers at the rally said they would return throughout the winter months to protest bring attention to their cause, promising to work with unions, Occupy Wall Street and others who they said might show solidarity with them.

Staff Reporter

Civis Journal

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