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Friday, September 16, 2011

September 16, 2011: Get Out the Vote

Many of the most passionate and committed activists in American history have dedicated their efforts to extending the franchise, to giving the vote, to those who did not already have it. Those three young Civil Rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—who were lynched near Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964 were taking part in the “Freedom Summer,” a period focused explicitly on voter registration among officially enfranchised but practically disenfranchised African Americans. While their story exemplifies the most extreme sacrifice, it’s fair to say that they were taking part in a long tradition of suffragist activism, one extending back to those who worked to enfranchise non-landed white men in the early 19th century, to those who created and supported the 15th Amendment after the Civil War, to the generations of women (and men) who fought for female suffrage in the second half of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century, and to many other such advocates—and extending forward to the ongoing efforts of organizations like ACORN (about whom more below) to aid impoverished and other less fortunate Americans in exercising their own franchise.

Many of the most hateful and violent acts of domestic terrorism in American history have been undertaken in order to deny the franchise, to take away the vote, from those who were legally entitled to it. The 1898 Wilmington (North Carolina) coup d’etat and massacre, about which I wrote in my first post, took place on election day in that city in order to capitalize explicitly on local white fears and anger about African Americans and the ballot box; similarly, the Reconstruction-era rise of the Ku Klux Klan was predicated in no small measure on precisely that issue, as were many of Jim Crow’s first laws (including the infamous grandfather clause and other backdoor disenfranchising measures). While the female suffragettes did not meet with that level of violent response, many of their marches and efforts were counter-protested in aggressive and ugly ways; both of those words would also describe much of the rhetoric about the movement and its activists in the media and in national conversations. Those most interested in maintaining hierarchies of power and privilege in America, in short, have always recognized the threat posed to their status quo by the ability of their fellow citizens to gain and then exercise their franchise, and have taken every conceivable measure to oppose those steps.
Much was made in the immediate build-up to the 2008 presidential election, at least on Fox News and in the conservative media more generally, about ACORN and the potential for a fraudulent election; much has of course continued to be made about that organization in particular, and the idea of voter fraud more generally, in the years since. But the truth is that even if the narratives about ACORN’s fraud were accurate—and they have been instead, not surprisingly, largely fabricated and entirely exaggerated—the accusations are that the organization is trying to allow people to vote who might not be legally able to do so for one reason or another. On the other hand, conservative activists have for many years worked diligently to deny the franchise to millions of their fellow Americans: the most overt example would have to be the almost certainly illegal disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of African Americans in Florida prior to the 2000 presidential election (which hinged, of course, on the very tight Florida results), but the truth is that in many states similar efforts to restrict voting rights and opportunities (including for example requiring photographic identification, something that many poorer Americans who lack a driver’s license do not possess) have been undertaken in recent years by Republican legislators and activists.
I suppose it’s possible to make logical cases for at least some of those efforts. But given the broader and more defining American histories on either side of this issue, the crucial question has to be this: why on earth would an entire political movement seek to associate itself with efforts to restrict voting rights and opportunities? And, even more significantly, why have we focused so much in recent years on ACORN and its ilk and so little on these much more troubling activists on the other side of the issue? More tomorrow,
PS. Four links to start with:
1)      An image of Norman Rockwell’s lesser-known but very powerful painting Murder in Mississippi (1965):

2)      Images both from and against the women’s suffrage movement:

3)      The Commission on Civil Rights’ report on Florida’s extensive disenfranchisement controversy and the 2000 election:

4)      OPEN: What do you think?

UPDATE) Great piece by political blogger Digby on this history of voter intimidation:

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