How Many Bubbles are in a Bar of Soap, the Policy and Practice of Voter Suppression
The 2014 mid-term elections draws near tasking us once again with determining our national leadership. A participatory democracy is critical to a free society. Voting is therefore a humbling and to some a burdensome responsibility. Yet, it is this fundamental right that separates us from most of the world.
The right to vote is extolled by every politician of every stripe as evidence of American Exceptionalism. Regrettably, ours is a history of voter suppression. And it started with the very founding of the nation as enshrined by nothing less than the United States Constitution.
Originally, only white male land owners were allowed to vote. Those without real property were politically disenfranchised and women were not permitted suffrage until ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. African-Americans and Native Americans were denied the right to vote for reasons far more sinister than class and gender bias.
Pursuant to the Constitution, blacks and Native Americas were not American citizens regardless that this was our country of residence and birth. Even worse, the Constitution denied our very humanity referring to us not as “persons” but as “others”. As such, we were constitutionally barred from voting. This legal state of non-humanity and the right to vote appurtenant thereto did not change until the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15 Amendments in the middle 1800’s.
Even then voter suppression continued. An on-line article by Zaineb Mohammed and Deanna Pan, entitled “Timeline: The Long History of Voter Suppression, published by Mother Jones on November 4, 2102, is illustrative of the practice.
During the 1800’s new and creative ways were initiated to keep certain people from voting. These devices and strategies included Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, “grandfather” clauses (did your father or grandfather vote during the election of 1867) and felony convictions, e.g., fraud. Paupers and the poor, people of visible admixture (mixed races); the Chinese under the Chinese Exclusion Act and so-called idiots, the insane and those of unsound mind were also prevented from voting.
In the 1900’s additional ingredients were added to the mix. It was reasoned for example, that voting was too burdensome for women, that Native Americans living on reservations were wards of the state and therefore exempt from voting, that under the Naturalization Act, minorities had to qualify as either white or black and that African-Americans could not vote unless and until vouched for by white voters. Gerrymandering out black voters was also used as well as the always reliable bloodshed and intimidation of lynching’s, white race riots, shootings, beatings and mob violence of the kind inflicted upon the Freedom Riders and the Pettus Bridge marchers during Selma Alabama’s “Bloody Sunday”.
One of the more ingenious forms of voter suppression was literacy tests. Southern blacks who could not correctly guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, count the stars in the sky or recite Article I of the Constitution were routinely disenfranchised. From this practice sprang the infamous ‘how many bubbles are in a bar of soap’ roadblock.
Sadly, contrary to our most cherished beliefs, denying certain groups access to the ballot is the rule rather than the exception. And the lesson of voter suppression is the lesson of history. Different names, terminology, locations and personalities may be at issue but history and attempts to suppress the vote always repeat themselves.
The ‘how many bubbles are in a bar of soap’ stratagem has morphed into today’s voter photo ID laws, restrictions on voter registration and early voting, the purging of voter rolls, inadequate voting resources allocated to minority communities, disinformation campaigns, cage lists (challenging the residency of voters who fail to respond to mail inquiries) and partisan election administrations such as the Florida 2000 Presidential election fiasco of voter purging, “hanging chads” and the political hand of Secretary of State Katherine Harris.
But more important than the how of voter suppression is the why. Restricting the pool of voters is not occasioned by a good faith attempt to preserve the integrity of the election process. The same ruse was used to justify the sending of false and threatening election material to black and brown communities via the GOP’s 1965, Operation Eagle Eye project. The same lie was used by the Dixicrats to prevent African-Americans from casting their ballots in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.
Moreover, the timing of the latest attempts at voter suppression is more than strange. For over 200 years, we have elected Presidents and other political leaders with no concern about in person voter fraud or the requirement of state issued photo identification. And try as they might, the advocates of such identification have yet to product any credible evidence that in person voter fraud is a real and significant problem. If voter photo identification was not necessary to elect Presidents as diverse as Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan and two Bushes, why is it critically now?
Simply put, current attempts to suppress the vote are not occasioned by any legitimate concern about voter fraud. They are instead motivated by fear of Americas’ changing demographics, i.e., the browning of America, the election of the first non-white President in the last two Presidential elections and the real possibility of electing the first female President in 2016?
As such, these and other attempts at voter suppression serve only to continue the policy of reserving political power to a select few, advanced by a belief, sentiment, and judgment that voting is not a right but a privilege that is deserved by some but not by all. They neither seek nor prefer a participatory or informed electorate. They instead covet voters who reflect their social perspective; their narrow interest. Or worse, one they can manipulate and control. Hence, efforts to suppress the vote will not stop.
Fortunately, there is a remedy. Said remedy however, is not to merely bitch and complains. The reason for the recent rise in voter suppression is because far too many of us failed to vote during the 2010 mid-term election, resulting in the rise of those who push a shrinking electorate. These forces now control many governor-ships and state houses.
The remedy is to instead cast our ballots not in spite of efforts to chill our legal rights and still our political voices but because of them. We must vote, all the time, every time, as often and diligently as possible for each and every public office for which there is an election. Should we make the same mistake now as we did then; should we fail to vote during this mid-term election as we did during the 2010 mid-term contests, we only strengthen the forces aligned against us.
So vote, damn it. Vote for your candidates and your interest whoever and whatever they may be. Our collective well-being if not our democracy may well depend upon it.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO
Blackacre Policy Forum