The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Taking Back The Vote

One breakout session at the Take Back the American Dream conference in Washington, DC, October 3-4, addresses an issue that has major implications for the progressive agenda in 2012 and beyond: "Voter Suppression and the 2012 Election: The Civil Rights Movement to Take Back the Right to Vote." In dozens of states, Republicans are aiming to restrict or take away the voting rights of core constituencies of the Democratic party.

When the tea party shouts their desire to take "their country" back, make no mistake the first thing they want to take back is the right to vote. They don’t just want to take it back. They want to transform it, again.

Debunked claims of "voter fraud" notwithstanding, boiled down to gravy the conservative movement to restrict voting amounts to one chief concern: too many people are voting. More specifically, too many of the wrong people are voting. That’s because somewhere between the nation’s founding and the 2008 election, the nature of voting changed. It was transformed from a privilege to a right.

If tea party conservatives have their way, the right to vote will revert back to a privilege — and one enjoyed by far fewer people. It’s easy to dismiss media motormouths like Ann Coulter, when she says that women should not have the right to vote, because too many of them vote Democratic (single women, anyway). But it’s a mistake to shrug off someone like Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips, who thinks it would be a good idea to put "certain restrictions on the right to vote," like restricting voting to property owners.

Phillips claim is reminiscent of Republican attempts to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting in the 2008 election in states like Michigan and Ohio. When right-wing pundits like Matthew Vadum (author of the ACORN "exposé" Subversion, Inc.) and Rush Limbaugh say that the poor shouldn’t have the right to vote, they’re expressing the same sentiment. It’s a manifestation of the conservative concern that too many of the "wrong people" have too much of a voice in politics, and too few of the "right people" have any. That’s what Paul Weyrich meant when he said to a group of evangelical activist in 1980: "I don’t want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."


In 2012 and beyond, tea party conservatives plan to increase their leverage in elections by ensuring that the "right people" have a greater voice in politics while the "wrong people" have little to none. This is mainly color. One color in particular, that is: Green. As Phillips, Vadum, Limbaugh and others make clear, the "right people" are those who have the most green; the most money, that is. Their voice in the political process was given a big boost by the Supreme Court’s Citizens’ United ruling, which opened the floodgates to the very corporate money that finances the tea party movement that in turn blocks campaign finance reform and promotes the interest of its corporate sponsors.

The "wrong people," whose voting "privilege" the right is working hard to revoke, look at lot like the coalition helped Obama win the White House and the Democrats win the House and Senate in 2008, and led voter turnout in 2010. As Ari Berman detailed in his chilling report for Rolling Stone, "The GOP War On Voting," the voting rights of millions of Americans are under threat because conservatives deem them the "wrong people" to be casting ballots.


As the nation gears up for the 2012 presidential election, Republican officials have launched an unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the elements of the Democratic vote that elected Barack Obama in 2008. Just as Dixiecrats once used poll taxes and literacy tests to bar black Southerners from voting, a new crop of GOP governors and state legislators has passed a series of seemingly disconnected measures that could prevent millions of students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots. "What has happened this year is the most significant setback to voting rights in this country in a century," says Judith Browne-Dianis, who monitors barriers to voting as co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C.

Republicans have long tried to drive Democratic voters away from the polls. "I don’t want everybody to vote," the influential conservative activist Paul Weyrich told a gathering of evangelical leaders in 1980. "As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." But since the 2010 election, thanks to a conservative advocacy group founded by Weyrich, the GOP’s effort to disrupt voting rights has been more widespread and effective than ever. In a systematic campaign orchestrated by the American Legislative Exchange Council – and funded in part by David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who bankrolled the Tea Party – 38 states introduced legislation this year designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process.

All told, a dozen states have approved new obstacles to voting. Kansas and Alabama now require would-be voters to provide proof of citizenship before registering. Florida and Texas made it harder for groups like the League of Women Voters to register new voters. Maine repealed Election Day voter registration, which had been on the books since 1973. Five states – Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia – cut short their early voting periods. Florida and Iowa barred all ex-felons from the polls, disenfranchising thousands of previously eligible voters. And six states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures – Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin – will require voters to produce a government-issued ID before casting ballots. More than 10 percent of U.S. citizens lack such identification, and the numbers are even higher among constituencies that traditionally lean Democratic – including 18 percent of young voters and 25 percent of African-Americans.

The GOP war on the vote doesn’t stop at the ballot box. In Pennsylvania, conservatives are toying with a scheme to change how the state rewards its electoral votes, portioning them out according to which candidates win each of its congressional districts instead of awarding them to the candidate who wins the most votes. GOP-dominated states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio may follow suit. It’s not just a thinly-veiled ploy to keep Barack Obama from winning Pennsylvania again in 2008. As with conservative noise about repealing the 17th amendment, which would mean reverting to senators being elected by state legislators instead of by popular vote, it’s another attempt divorce Americans from the political process.

It’s not hyperbole to compare today’s war on the vote to the Jim crow laws of the past, as Bill Clinton did, not with voter ID laws that bear striking resemblance to the "poll tax," and conservatives like Newt Gingrich proposing a revival of poll tests. Jim Crow laws were themselves the result of white southerners’ post-Reconstruction efforts to restrict the civil rights and civil liberties of African American — both freemen and former slaves.

It’s an appropriate comparison for those reasons alone, but also because it’s a reminder of what I mentioned earlier. In the course of our nation’s history, the privilege of voting was transformed into the right to vote — a right that was eventually extended to all Americans, regardless of race, gender, religion, economic status, etc. It didn’t happen by accident. It was hard won, as Fannie Lou Hamer described in her famous testimony before the credentials committee of the 1964 Democratic convention, put into context below by Ta-nehisi Coates.

I briefly alluded to Fannie Lou Hamer yesterday. Hamer was born in Mississippi in 1917, and spent much of her life as a sharecropper. In 1964, in the face of constant threats and violence, Hamer and other activists organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The thing to understand here is that in 1964, 42 percent of Mississippi’s population was black, and virtually all of them had been prevented from voting since 1890. Even blacks, like Hamer, who could pass the literacy tests were kept from voting by a statewide campaign of intimidation.

…In 1964, Hamer and the Freedom Democrats came to the national convention and demanded to have their own delegation–based on open and free voting seated. Forgive all the back-story. Here is Hamer’s testimony speaking before the Democratic credentials committee. Listen to it. It is chilling.

To the tea party, "taking their country back" starts with taking right to vote away from minorities, the poor, the elderly, young people, etc. — the "wrong people."

For progressives, taking back the American Dream must start with taking back and defending the right to vote. For all.

Update: While researching this post I discovered or re-discovered something that’s been brought to my attention since publishing it: the right to vote isn’t actually in the constitution. But I’m saving that for a follow-up post.


  1. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Under National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would be included in the national count. The candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states would get the 270+ electoral votes from the enacting states. That majority of electoral votes guarantees the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states wins the presidency.

    National Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state and district (in ME and NE). Now their votes are counted only for the candidate they did not vote for. Now they don’t matter to their candidate.

    With National Popular Vote, elections wouldn’t be about winning states or districts (in ME and NE). No more distorting and divisive red and blue state and district maps. Every vote, everywhere would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. Support is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed iin recent polls in closely divided battleground states: CO– 68%, IA –75%, MI– 73%, MO– 70%, NH– 69%, NV– 72%, NM– 76%, NC– 74%, OH– 70%, PA — 78%, VA — 74%, and WI — 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE –75%, ME — 77%, NE — 74%, NH –69%, NV — 72%, NM — 76%, RI — 74%, and VT — 75%; in Southern and border states: AR –80%, KY — 80%, MS –77%, MO — 70%, NC — 74%, and VA — 74%; and in other states polled: CA — 70%, CT — 74% , MA — 73%, MN – 75%, NY — 79%, WA — 77%, and WV- 81%.

    On Election Night, most voters don’t care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state… they care whether he/she wins the White House. Voters want to know, that even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was directly and equally counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans consider the idea of the candidate with the most popular votes being declared a loser detestable. We don’t allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislativ­e chambers, in 21 small, medium-sma­ll, medium, and large states, including one house in AR, CT, DE, DC, ME, MI, NV, NM, NY, NC, and OR, and both houses in CA, CO, HI, IL, NJ, MD, MA, RI, VT, and WA. The bill has been enacted by DC (3), HI (4), IL (19), NJ (14), MD (11), MA (10), CA (55), VT (3), and WA (13). These 9 jurisdicti­ons possess 132 electoral votes — 49% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


  2. Republican legislators seem quite “confused” about the merits of the congressional district method. The leadership committee of the Nebraska Republican Party just adopted a resolution requiring all GOP elected officials to favor overturning their district method for awarding electoral votes or lose the party’s support. While in Pennsylvania, Republican legislators insist we must change from the winner-take-all method to the district method.

    And up in Maine, the only other state beside Nebraska to use the district method, Mike Tipping reports on Republicans, also newly in the majority like their counterparts in Pennsylvania. This year, Republican leaders in Maine proposed and passed a constitutional amendment that, if passed at referendum, will require a 2/3rds vote in all future redistricting decisions. Now they want to pass a majority-only plan.

    Dividing Pennsylvania’s electoral votes by district would magnify the worst features of the system and not reflect the diversity of Pennsylvania.

    The district approach would provide less incentive for presidential candidates to campaign in all Pennsylvania districts and would not focus the candidates’ attention to issues of concern to the whole state. Candidates would have no reason to campaign in districts where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind.

    Due to gerrymandering, in 2008, only 4 Pennsylvania districts were competitive.

    In Maine, where they award electoral votes by congressional district, the closely divided 2nd congressional district received campaign events in 2008 (whereas Maine’s 1st reliably Democratic district was ignored)

    In Nebraska, which also uses the district method, the 2008 presidential campaigns did not pay the slightest attention to the people of Nebraska’s reliably Republican 1st and 3rd congressional districts because it was a foregone conclusion that McCain would win the most popular votes in both of those districts. The issues relevant to voters of the 2nd district (the Omaha area) mattered, while the (very different) issues relevant to the remaining (mostly rural) 2/3rds of the state were irrelevant.

    When votes matter, presidential candidates vigorously solicit those voters. When votes don’t matter, they ignore those areas.

    Nationwide, there are only 55 “battleground” districts that are competitive in presidential elections. 88% of the nation’s congressional districts would be ignored if a district-level winner-take-all system were used nationally.

    If the district approach were used nationally, it would be less fair and less accurately reflect the will of the people than the current system. In 2004, Bush won 50.7% of the popular vote, but 59% of the districts. Although Bush lost the national popular vote in 2000, he won 55% of the country’s congressional districts.

    Awarding electoral votes by congressional district could result in third party candidates winning electoral votes that would deny either major party candidate the necessary majority vote of electors and throw the process into Congress to decide.

    Because there are generally more close votes on district levels than states as whole, district elections increase the opportunity for error. The larger the voting base, the less opportunity there is for an especially close vote.

    Also, a second-place candidate could still win the White House without winning the national popular vote.

    A national popular vote is the way to make every person’s vote equal and guarantee that the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states becomes President.