Editor of the Reformer,
With the nation awash in anxiety over voter disenfranchisement, it’s worth remembering our voting rights history.
The post-Civil War Reconstruction period saw many black men serve in government positions from postmaster to member of Congress. It didn’t last long. Southern states began imposing multiple barriers to black men voting: poll taxes, literacy tests, etc. A literacy test in states where few black citizens were educated beyond a few years--many schools systems did not even have high schools for black teens -- necessarily kept blacks from voting. These obstacles were justified as bringing “integrity” to the polls. Sometimes the mask slipped, though, as when Virginia Senator Carter Glass said that his plan “would eliminate the darker as a political factor in this state in less than five years." Those who sought to change these laws faced jail, violence and death.
These violations of democratic ideals did not go unnoticed. Each lynching, each miscarriage of justice became fodder for Soviet propaganda. Millions in the U.S. and around the world watched Bloody Sunday in March 1965 as peaceful marchers met tear gas, barbed wire, bull whips and police on horseback. The spectacle prompted Lyndon Johnson to demand that Congress take action, resulting in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet the right to register to vote remained limited, eventually prompting the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) in 1993 which specified that the right to vote "is a fundamental right and it is the duty of the Federal, State and local governments to promote the exercise of that right."
But these legal protections are again under attack. In 2016, Kris Kobach proposed amending the NVRA to require proof of citizenship. A 2017 Trump executive order created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity supposedly to combat election fraud. Nominally headed by Pence, it operated under fanatical Kobach. The few Democrats were ignored; commission documents were not even shared with them. After multiple lawsuits against the Commission, no evidence of serious fraud, and a court order that documents be shared with Democratic members, the Commission was disbanded in January of 2018.
But voter suppression directed at black voters and others deemed likely to vote Democratic remains alive and well. Onerous voter ID requirements and the like are once again defended as necessary for “integrity.” Those of us who love what the country stands for can help by voting, voting, voting!!!
Shaftsbury, Oct. 26