According to the Nation magazine, a term from the history books, ‘Jim Crow’, looks to be making a resurgence, at least in a minor key. Eight of eleven states in the former Confederacy have passed restrictive voting laws since the 2010 election. Laws mandating strict forms of government-issued identification to cast a ballot were passed in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Laws requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote were passed in Alabama and Tennessee. Restrictions on voter registration drives were enacted in Florida and Texas. Virginia, not to be outdone, is notably tightening its voter ID law, actually disallowing different forms of identity verification—this despite only a handful of voter ‘identification’ violations on record in the state out of 4 million votes cast. One bill has passed in the House already. An alternative, in the Virginia Senate (SB1256), disallows any ID without a photograph, but does offer to fund the ID for poorer voters.
Of course, Republicans (with assistance from ALEC) have long argued that voter fraud in the United States is a widespread problem and called for requirements that voters have a government-issued identification. But they had no real proof of any voter fraud—much less ‘widespread’ voter fraud, except, of course, just prior to the national election when the Republican National Committee (RNC) canceled its contract with a firm accused of destroying voter registration forms for Democratic voters while submitting fraudulent Republican voter registration forms themselves. You might argue that the firm, ‘Strategic Alliance’ was just a bad apple, but you would be wrong. The Los Angeles Times reports that the RNC urged the firm to change its name before hiring it because of allegations of registration fraud in previous elections. So the last major incident of voting fraud in the nation was initiated by the Republican party itself.
But that hasn’t swayed Republican efforts. In conjunction with new voting restrictions, Republicans all across the South have used their control of state legislatures to pass redistricting maps that favor Republican candidates and narrow the number of viable Democratic districts, placing as many Democratic lawmakers into as few “majority-minority” districts as possible. This is also known as ‘gerrymandering.’
Ari Berman, writing in The Nation notes that “in virtually every state in the South, at the Congressional and state level, Republicans—to protect and expand their gains in 2010—have increased the number of minority voters in majority-minority districts represented overwhelmingly by black Democrats while diluting the minority vote in swing or crossover districts held by white Democrats. “What’s uniform across the South is that Republicans are using race as a central basis in drawing districts for partisan advantage,” says Anita Earls, a prominent civil rights lawyer and executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “The bigger picture is to ultimately make the Democratic Party in the South be represented only by people of color.” The GOP’s long-term goal is to enshrine a system of racially polarized voting that will make it harder for Democrats to win races on local, state, federal and presidential levels. Four years after the election of Barack Obama, which offered the promise of a new day of postracial politics in states like North Carolina, Republicans are once again employing a Southern Strategy that would make Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater proud.”
That might seem a bit strident, but it’s not, if you understand the South’s history. Voter Suppression in the South has a kind of ‘eternal return’ aspect to it. Towards the end of the Civil War and directly after, a series of Amendments were passed that sought to guarantee to minorities the rights of any white person: freedom from slavery, the rights of citizenship, and, most importantly, the right to vote. But in the 1870s, after Federal troops withdrew from the South as part of the 1877 Compromise, Southern legislatures including Virginia, passed a series of laws collectively known as Jim Crow. The effects were devastating. Ironically, minorities found themselves with more freedom of movement and political latitude in the short ten to twelve year period directly after the Civil War than at any time in their history until well into the 20th century. All the hope that inspired blacks during Reconstruction (when the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments gave black Americans freedom, citizenship, and the right to vote) suddenly vanished.
In 1878, Congress forbade the use of the Army to protect black voters from the intimidation and physical violence with which they were regularly threatened. By 1894, Congress ceased appropriations for federal marshals to protect black voters at the polls. In 1901, the last black representative lost his seat in Congress. It would be 30 years before a black person could gain a seat in the House or Senate. This was not an accident.
In 1902, Virginia wrote into its constitution that white and ‘colored’ children could not be taught in the same school. Additionally, laws were passed by the Virginia General Assembly that outlawed miscegenation, “It shall hereafter be unlawful for any white person in this State to marry any save a white person…”For the purpose of this act,” they were careful to note, “the term ‘white person’ shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.”
Public facilities and public transportation were ordered to be segregated and the State Corporation Commission was the designated agency to enforce ‘separate waiting areas’ in the terminals for the races. Most importantly, voting poll taxes were put into place and the state’s treasurers were ordered to enforce these laws. Keep in mind this was all done with gentlemanly aplomb and bipartisan fervor. It was a conscious effort to silence an entire race, and for a very long time it worked. Not just in Virginia, of course, but all across the South.
So, given this history, you would think the current residents of the Virginia General Assembly would be a wee bit reticent about enacting laws that would have much the same effect today. But as if to underscore their voter suppression heritage, the Virginia Senate passed a gerrymandered redistricting bill during President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. The vote, 20-19, would have been a tie had Democratic Senator Henry Marsh been present, but Henry Marsh, a famous civil rights leader, was in Washington, D.C., attending President Obama’s inauguration.
Luckily, the bad publicity garnered by the gerrymandering bill caused Republican Speaker of the House, William Howell to have second thoughts. Howell effectively killed the bill by ruling it ‘not germane.’ It could be that the specter of Virginia’s past was a little too close for comfort, or, more likely, it’s the appearance of Republicans across the South happily embracing the efforts of the ex-Confederacy that made Howell think twice. Indeed, the same day that the Virginia Senate passed the redistricting plan, they adjourned in honor of the Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. It was, after all, his birthday.
Let’s hope the rest of the Republicans –both at the national and at the state level—learn from the Marsh incident and the negative publicity that Virginia’s State Republican establishment has once again brought on themselves. It’s never too late to learn from history.