When Newt Gingrich suggested that America impose a poll test in U.S. history as a requirement for native-born citizens to vote, it was too much even for black Tea Party Congressman Allen West (R-FL). “That’s going back to some times that my parents had to contend with,” West said of the notion of a Jim Crow-style literacy test. “I think that we need to do a better job educating our young men and women in school, but we don’t need to have a litmus test, no.”
For Gingrich, who recently called Obama a “food stamp president,” this is part of a pattern of racially offensive remarks, policy positions and affiliations - against African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims and others. But Gingrich is merely a spoke in the wheel. There is nationwide effort by the Republican Party to suppress voter turnout in next year’s presidential election. Devoid of any ideas to beat Obama and win over the electorate, and crippled by a roster of candidates consisting of empty suits, wingnuts and the otherwise unelectable, this is their election strategy for 2012.
And it is a game plan perfected by Dixiecrats in the days of segregation, and for the same reasons. Segregationists employed the poll test, poll tax, threat of physical violence and other tactics to keep blacks out of the political process and maintain Jim Crow rule. Such a regime would become untenable once African-Americans were able to exercise their right to vote, and the racists in power knew that. In a healthy, authentic democratic system, we benefit from broad and inclusive participation. Sadly, throughout this country’s history, this land of the free, the right to vote was secured for more and more people through protest. People were compelled to struggle for the franchise through hardship, bloodshed, and in some cases martyrdom.
As the party of the Southern Strategy from the 1960s onward, the GOP assumed the mantle of white Christian conservatism, and with it, a mindset characterized by racial resentment over the gains of the civil rights movement, and the continued presence of blacks, Latinos and others. This resentment was then disguised as opposition to taxes, social programs and big government, on the grounds that people of color benefited more from these programs.
Often an effective means to divide and conquer in the short term, the Southern Strategy has revealed its fatal flaw: in an increasingly diverse nation such as the U.S., Republican dependence on a dwindling demographic of angry, rightwing Tea Party folks for their electoral victory leaves them with only one of two options - fade into oblivion, or, as thugs would do in corrupt regimes and banana republics, suppress the vote. And that’s why the GOP, predicting their own failure to prevail on the merits of their positions before a national audience, has taken it to the gutter.
This time, it’s called Voter ID. This year, conservative lawmakers in 20 states such as Montana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin have been pushing bills that would require voters to produce an ID, typically a driver’s license, state-issued ID or passport. Legislation recently passed in the Florida and Texas legislatures, and the governors of Kansas and South Carolina just signed Voter ID bills into law. And 13 of 27 states that already have such a law are considering beefing up their requirements.
The stated reason for the need for such laws is the ever-present scourge of voter fraud. But as the Brennan Center for Justice points out, fraud is extremely rare, the way that being struck by lightning is rare, except that voter fraud is even less common. Moreover, these policies, which are costly to implement, would disenfranchise millions of voters without tackling any real problem.
But for Republicans, there is an unstated problem that the Voter ID bills address - those pesky black and Latino voters who have the nerve to want to go out and vote, not to mention those seniors, people with disabilities, low-income voters, and students. These groups are less likely to possess a government-issued ID. And it is no accident that they are traditional Democratic constituencies, so this law is for them. And to that end, the GOP plays the role of the bully who beats you up every day and takes your lunch money.
In a normal world, when you want to win an election, it’s all about “Get Out The Vote” efforts. But when your goal is to snatch victory from the gutter, “Block The Vote” will do.