With Fresh Eyes

The Voter Silenced

By Rich Nelson

John Lewis was nearly killed by Alabama state troopers on March 7, 1965 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma. Lewis, now a U.S. Congressman from Georgia, was participating in a peaceful march for voting rights when the troopers charged the crowd with billy clubs. Lewis sustained two blows to the head, which fractured his skull. He later recalled, “At the moment when I was hit on the bridge, and began to fall, I really thought it was my last march. I saw death, and I thought, it’s okay – I’m doing what I am supposed to do.” Known as “Bloody Sunday,” the attack on the marchers incited a national outrage and became one of the pivotal moments in the protracted struggle for civil rights.

A week later, President Lyndon Johnson, in front of Congress and the nation, responded to the events at Selma by emphatically stating, “Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right.” He cited efforts, primarily in the South, to place barriers, such as stringent literacy tests, to keep African-Americans off the voting rolls.  LBJ’s plea, and the Selma indignity, led to the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting discrimination in voting.

Voting rights began to collapse in 2013, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Shelby County V. Holder. By a 5 to 4 vote, the Court gutted a portion of the Voting Rights Act, opening the door for states with a history of voter suppression to change voting rules without federal government oversight. Legislation put in place since then, at the state level, has created new barriers to voting.

And, it is the Republican Party that has led the charge in erecting these barriers, among them stricter ID requirements, limits on early voting, and the closure of polling places. Voter fraud is the justification used in the implementation of these restrictive policies, although numerous studies have shown no indication of any measurable voter malfeasance.

This is the reality: Republicans currently control 33 governorships and 32 state legislative bodies. They have employed questionable practices and policies to preserve their power. Gerrymandering, which is on the Michigan ballot this fall (Editor’s Note: Proposal 2, see article on page 1), has carved out new congressional districts favorable to the party in power. A VICE News study shows the closing of several polling places across the country has disproportionately impacted minority communities. The study concludes that closing polling sites puts an unfair burden on those who now need to cast a vote outside their neighborhood, increasing travel time to the new polling site and wait time in lengthier lines. Low-income voters who do not have transportation may be unable to participate with such restrictions in place.

Many Native Americans may be held back from voting this year in North Dakota due to a new law passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature. It requires that ID presented at the polls must show a street address, although residents on tribal lands often use a Post Office box. In Georgia, the Secretary of State’s office has frozen the applications of 50,000 newly registered voters, 70% African-American, for small “discrepancies.” The Secretary of State overseeing this is Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for Governor. 

In Texas, Floyd Carrier, a Korean War Veteran, was turned away at the polls a couple years back for not having the proper ID. His Department of Veterans Affairs card, which he had used as ID for 50 years, was no longer valid due to a more restrictive Texas law. “I was no longer a citizen,” he lamented.

Support candidates who will open up the voting process for all Americans.  Vote in favor of proposals, here in Michigan, that will end gerrymandering, implement automatic voter registration, and restore straight ticket voting. This is not 1965. We should not have to fight old battles over again. But, we must.
Contact Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com