The NAACP will be sending a delegation to the United Nations Commissioner of Human Rights alleging a concerted effort to deny voting rights to black and hispanic Americans. Given how rarely anyone in the United States looks to the United Nations for justice, and how often the United States ignores the UN, this is both a significant and futile effort. But what’s at issue is so egregious that the NAACP has chosen to shout it from a global stage.
In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, the United States had one of the highest turnouts ever of black and Latino voters. Undoubtedly, this made a difference in the election: Obama won by a slim margin in many states that had traditionally voted Republicans. The high turnout of blacks and Latinos made the difference in crucial swing states like Florida, Ohio, Colorado and New Mexico. And southern states, which have a high percentage of blacks, are traditionally carried by the Republican party – but if enough blacks and Latinos vote, that isn’t the case.
It does not seem like coincidence, then, that since 2008, many of these states have introduced laws that make it much more difficult to register to vote and to actually vote. They have done this in the name of combating “voter fraud”. This poses the question: does the United States have a problem with voter fraud? Not that it can find.
The Bush administration launched an initiative to combat voter fraud. After a five-year effort by the justice department, they found no organised effort, brought charges in 132 cases and obtained prosecutions in about 86, as the New York Times reported in 2007, after summarising the Bush administration’s report on the subject. And numerous other reports have supported the Bush administration’s findings.
But even if the United States can identify a problem with voter fraud, why should anyone take issue with efforts to prevent it, the proponents of these laws ask. After all, proponents say, the laws won’t prevent legitimate voters from voting. Indeed, some of the laws sound reasonable at first: why shouldn’t a potential voter have to produce government-issued identification proving that they are who they say they are and that they live where they say they live, mandates a law passed by eight states and pending in more.
Since I grew up in the Mississippi, which passed such a law ostensibly to prevent fraud, I’ll look at the practical application of it. Mississippi’s population has the highest percentage of blacks in the country: 38%. Compared to the $65 I pay in New York, where I live now, a Mississippi driver’s license seems like a bargain at $21. Unless, of course, you are poor – which abut 35% of blacks are, with 57% of blacks in Mississippi earning less than $25,000 per year according to the 2000 census. Then, it might seem like too much to pay if you don’t have a car to drive.
Well, if you don’t want to pay for a driver’s license, you can obtain an ID card in Mississippi for only $13. But you then have to bring a copy of your state-issued birth certificate, which, if you don’t have it, costs $15. And even if you could afford it, if you were born poor and black in Mississippi in the first half of the 1900s, it’s very possible that you were barred from the white-only hospitals and have only anecdotal evidence of the date of your birth. In the United States, citizens are not required to carry any sort of ID card in their daily life; thus the national government does not issue one without a specific request or fee. Nonetheless, it is difficult for affluent people, involved in all of the trappings of middle-class life – car-owning and driving, check-writing, international traveling, etc – to understand that many people don’t have drivers’ licenses or passports and aren’t asked for them in their extremely localised, cash-transactional lives.
So, this very reasonable-sounding requirement means that many poor people, a disproportionate number of whom are black in Mississippi, will be unable to vote.
This particular law has to be examined closely for one to realise how disenfranchising it is for poor people, blacks and Latinos. Others, though, are just bald efforts to prevent poor people, predominantly people of color, from voting. There are laws, for instance, that prevent early voting, even though this is essential for low-income people who often have little control over their working hours. There are laws, also, that subject voter registrations efforts, which often bring in poor people on the margins of society, to onerous restrictions. This recently forced, for example, the League of Women Voters, one of the nation’s bedrock voting groups, to cancel their annual drive in Florida.
I doubt the NAACP expects to obtain justice by pursuing their case at the United Nations. But the push to limit the ability of poor people, blacks and Latinos to participate in the electoral process is so outrageous, that it must be loudly denounced in front of the nations of the world. I was born after the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s, when white southerners still tried to use billy clubs to prevent blacks from voting. My daughter was born just after the first black president was elected. I thought we were making progress in this country.Comments (0)