For more than two years, the far-right Tea Party and its cast of Republican admirers have wrapped themselves in the trappings of patriotism. Along with eagles and flags, conservatives have made liberal use of the image of Uncle Sam.
But an aggressive, nationwide push by right-wing lawmakers to change the very procedures by which Americans exercise our right to vote is inviting comparisons with a different name from history: Jim Crow.
“I was raised in Mississippi. I saw water fountains labeled by race,” says Charlie E. Hubbert, an Army veteran from Milwaukee. “I saw places that said ‘Whites Only’ and stores with separate entrances. For people like me and my 86-year-old mother, this new policy is a terrible reminder of that era.”
The policy Hubbert refers to is Wisconsin’s new voter ID law. It requires all voters in the state to present a photo identification card with a signature and a period of validity of two years or less, in order to cast a ballot.
Despite the public’s demand for action on job creation, new Republican majorities in both chambers of the state legislature made the bill a priority last spring. Republican governor Scott Walker, now facing a recall drive, signed it in May. It took effect July 1.
Critics contend that obstacles the law throws before ordinary voters will deny the vote to thousands of Wisconsinites. Some liken its restrictions to white segregationists’ tactics thwarting black voters in the south for several generations before the breakthroughs of the civil rights movement, federal legal protections, and their enforcement by the Justice Department.
The Brennan Center for Justice, in a landmark 2006 analysis, found that insistence on photo IDs opens the door to discrimination against many groups of Americans. Women often lack documentation in their current name, as do seniors, low-income whites, immigrants, and people of color. While 11 percent of the overall population has no government-issued photo ID, 16 percent of Hispanics, 18 percent of seniors, and 25 percent of African-Americans lack photo IDs.
The disparity, and danger of disenfranchisement, appears to be especially acute in Milwaukee. A 2005 University of Wisconsin report showed that 59 percent of Hispanic women and 55 percent of African-American in the city did not possess a current state-issued photo ID.
Barriers to voting for people with disabilities are numerous and notorious. Census data show that people with disabilities are 20 times more likely than nondisabled Americans to cite a permanent physical condition as a reason for being unregistered. When registered, people with disabilities are four times more likely not to vote because of transportation difficulties. On top of this obstacle course, the voter ID law places an added set of hurdles for the disabled in Wisconsin.
More may be riding on this one state law than any other statute in the nation. Wisconsin’s history of close statewide outcomes — a few hundred votes in this year’s race for a pivotal state Supreme Court seat, and a fraction of 1 percent in both the 2000 and 2004 presidential contests — make it conceivable the law could swing a possible recall election of Governor Walker or even next year’s outcome in President Obama’s reelection. With six other states set to implement similar laws on January 1, and 15 now enforcing photo ID laws, millions of Americans stand to face frustrating and perhaps insurmountable barriers to casting a ballot that will count in 2012.
Veterans are among those who may be cut off. Hubbert, whose duties in an Army cavalry division took him to Vietnam, is senior vice commander of his local chapter of Disabled American Veterans. He underscores the perverse impact on those who served overseas in defense of America’s democratic principles. “This law imposes a hardship on older people and many veterans. It’s going to be real painful.”
Some veterans with disabilities, he notes, lack driver’s licenses for obvious reasons, and some are not involved in veterans’ programs that might provide them a state-issued ID.
Wisconsin now offers a free voter ID card that complies with the new law. But the Walker administration has sought to close off even that option by issuing instructions to all motor vehicles departments insisting that people pay $28 for the non-driver’s photo ID unless they explicitly ask for it to be produced for them free.
After a Reuters report in September unmasked the suppression of the free voter ID — itself a workaround from the state voter ID mandate widely labeled a scheme to suppress voters — state officials scrambled to save face. The Government Accountability Board is now traveling to state campuses explaining how students can comply with the ID requirement, whose terms disqualified their student IDs.
Amidst growing anger over the law, the state election board responded to pressure from students and some higher-ed faculty and administrators by granting permission November 22 to the University of Wisconsin system to print new secondary ID cards that comply with the new law.
Notably missing from conservatives’ damage-control effort has been the GOP moderate who heads the state department of transportation, Mark Gottlieb. A Milwaukee native and Vietnam-era veteran himself, Gottlieb lost a power struggle among Republicans to lead the legislature following last fall’s electoral gains for their party. He later accepted Walker’s appointment to head the agency.
As resistance to conservative policies begins to mount in Wisconsin and other states, Republicans who do not march in lockstep with the anti-tax, anti-labor, anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-government goals of Republican lawmakers play an increasingly pivotal role in American politics. So do seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities, three groups of voters whose political allegiances are mixed, but who are bearing the brunt of cutbacks in public services and are now being stung by new restrictions on voting access.
Voters are not rolling over. On November 8, Ohioans overwhelmingly rejected an anti-union law undercutting collective bargaining. And Mainers effectively vetoed conservatives’ state policy ending election-day voter registration. Nine GOP lawmakers and the governor had actually availed themselves of its terms in years past.
Swept into office by voter anger in 2010, state Republican lawmakers are beginning to face a backlash that could define the 2012 elections. Provoking some of that anger is the tone of callousness toward people of color, women, and the sacrifice of veterans who voice frustration at the toll of cuts and barriers in the democratic process itself. Whether Republican measures defining who can cast ballots actually shrink the electorate or cause outraged voters to outmaneuver the barriers and punish their designers will determine the duration of Republicans’ grip on power.
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