What the Assault on Voting Rights Reveals

August 25, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


1963, Birmingham, Alabama. Photo: AP

One of the hallmarks of the century of vicious Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. after the Civil War—enforced through official police terror and lynch mobs—was denying Black people the right to vote. Measures like requiring people to pass literacy tests or pay poll taxes before casting ballots imposed barriers to voting by Black people—even though the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, passed after the Civil War, supposedly guaranteed that no citizen could be denied the right to vote by the federal government or any state government because of their "race, color, or conditions of previous servitude." It was only in 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, that those overt barriers to Black people exercising their right to vote were removed.

Almost 50 years later, the voting rights of Black as well as Latino people are under a heavy assault. The biggest blow so far was the U.S. Supreme Court ruling this June that struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act, basically gutting the law. This has opened the floodgates to laws and measures at the state and local levels, not just in the former slave states in the South but around the country, that effectively limit Black and Latino people's voting rights.

One common type of voter suppression law requires people to present an officially recognized ID before they can register to vote. Just hours after the June Supreme Court ruling, the Texas Attorney General announced that his state's voter ID law "will take effect immediately." The law had previously been blocked by a federal court under the Voting Rights Act for discriminating against Blacks and Latinos. North Carolina followed with a law that puts even stricter limits on the type of IDs considered valid for voter registration. Similar laws requiring IDs are being considered or coming to effect in states across the U.S.

As was the case with the voting barriers under Jim Crow, those behind the current voter ID laws don't outright say that they intend to prevent Black and other oppressed people from voting. Instead, they claim they are out to stop "voter fraud." But the reality is that because of deep-rooted oppressive relations in this society, Black and Latino people overall are much more likely to be poor and unable to afford the costs involved in getting officially approved IDs like drivers licenses, or to face other difficulties in acquiring such documents. And studies have shown that ID requirements and other voter suppression measures do indeed result in disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino people (as well youth, the elderly, and disabled people) being prevented from registering to vote or being dropped from the voter rolls. There are also schemes like redrawing electoral district maps to the disadvantage of Black and Latino residents (a practice known as gerrymandering).

Another way that millions of people have been disenfranchised is through laws in various states that deny people the right to vote if they have a criminal conviction—not just while they are incarcerated but even after they are out of prison. Again, these laws don't mention race so they are "color-blind" on the surface. But because Black and Latino people are unjustly targeted by this system's laws and police, leading to a disproportionate percentage of Black and Latino people in prisons and in the grip of the whole "criminal justice system" compared to whites, the actual effect of the criminal disenfranchisement laws is to target those sections of the people. This has led to a situation where, for example, 13 percent of all Black men have lost their right to vote.

Now, people should be clear about another important aspect of reality: no serious social or political change has ever been, or will ever be, obtained through voting under this system. Voting and the whole electoral process serve to draw people into the killing confines of this capitalist-imperialist system—and to allow the rulers to proclaim that they are acting in the name of the "American people" as they carry out brutal exploitation, wars, assassinations, and other crimes around the world. (For more on voting and elections, check out the film BA Speaks: REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS! Bob Avakian Live, in particular disc 2 of the DVD, the chapter titled "The Election Hustle: 'If They Draw You In, They Win.'")

Black people in the Jim Crow South—joined by others—fought with determination and courage for the right to vote, and some of the fighters lost their lives in the struggle. This hard-fought fight—and the struggle and upsurge among Black people and throughout society at the time as well as the impact of this on the world—forced the ruling class of this country into a concession in the form of the Voting Rights Act. The assault now on the right of Black and other oppressed people to vote is part of not just the continuation but, in many ways, the intensification of the overall oppression and the ugly reassertion of white supremacy that is so foundational to this country. So while there should be no illusions about the actual nature of voting and elections under this system, the attack on the right of Black and Latinos to vote must be clearly opposed and fought against—not in order to wage a "new civil rights movement" but as part of fighting the power, and transforming the people, for revolution.

Representing the majority in the Supreme Court's decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice John Roberts said that the Act did not reflect "current conditions." In other words, Roberts (and powerful forces in the ruling class) claim that this is now a "color-blind" and "post-racial" society—that discrimination and injustices against Black and other oppressed people are things of the past. Antonin Scalia, another member of the Court's majority, declared during oral arguments in the case that the Voting Rights Act amounted to "racial entitlement"—in other words, that it gave preferential treatment to Black people.

Consider the fact that these men who spout such white-supremacist shit are actually part of the "highest court of the land" which has now opened the door wide to the widespread suppression of the voting rights of oppressed people that were supposedly outlawed almost 50 years ago—and that others at the top of the power structure, like Barack Obama, may express polite "disagreement" with these right-wingers but would never call them out as racist reactionaries who should be condemned and exposed. As Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party says, "America has had its chances to do right by Black people. First through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and then during the 1960s, when people struggled mightily to deal with the horrors Black people faced. And each time, America changed the forms of oppression but kept it in effect. What is the situation today? The New Jim Crow. More than 2 million people in prison; and more than 5 million formerly incarcerated facing discrimination when looking for work, and barred from living in public housing and receiving government loans. Racial profiling, stop-and-frisk and a school-to-prison pipeline. Voting rights being snatched back. It's long past time to say, 'That's it for this system. Time's up!'"

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