On Monday, March 15, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed a Joint Session of Congress. It was a mere week after the deadly clashes in Selma, Alabama, where the police had attacked protestors as they assembled for a march to Montgomery to highlight voter rights discrimination. President Johnson had been concerned about racial violence in the South almost from the moment he had been sworn in as president on Air Force One in late November 1963. In early June 1964, as the Civil Rights Act moved toward enactment, LBJ had become so concerned that he asked FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to "to fill up Mississippi and infiltrate everything he could, that he haul them [the KKK] in by the dozens." (conversation with Associate Counsel to the President, Lee White, June 23rd, 1964). This was during the Freedom Summer, an effort organized by the NAACP, CORE, SCLC, and SNCC to register as many blacks to vote in Mississippi as possible. When their efforts were met with unrelenting violence, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was formed in an attempt to have its delegates seated at the Democratic National Convention in lieu of the all-white undemocratically elected delegates of the official Democratic Party of Mississippi. President Johnson had felt compelled to intervene at the convention on the side of the segregationists. Now, in the fresh light of the Selma violence, he was introducing the Voting Rights Act. Johnson was finally taking a stand.
He explained why it was necessary to have federal legislation to protect the voting rights of "negroes."
Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument: every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to insure that right. Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes.
Every device of which human ingenuity is capable, has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists and, if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name, or because he abbreviated a word on the application. And if he manages to fill out an application, he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of state law.
And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write. For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin. Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books, and I have helped to put three of them there, can insure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it. In such a case, our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color.
We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution. We must now act in obedience to that oath. Wednesday, I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote.
When Johnson said that "every device of which human ingenuity is capable, has been used to deny" blacks the vote, he had many concrete examples in mind, which he listed. What he didn't have in mind is what are commonly called "Voter ID laws." These are more properly known as "polling place Photo ID restrictions," because the objection to the laws is not that they require some form of identification. The objection is that the laws require a specific, very narrowly-defined type of state-issued photo ID, which many do not have and thus they become disenfranchised. These polling place Photo ID restriction laws have proliferated like crazy since the 2010 midterm elections. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University has many reports on the impact of changes in election law. According to one recent report (pdf), new polling place Photo ID restriction laws will disenfranchise 3.2 million qualified voters. Even more restrictive "proof of citizenship" laws (for which a driver's license is insufficient) will disenfranchise another quarter of a million citizens who can't provide the necessary proof (do you know where your Birth Certificate is?).
For example, survey results show that only 48% of voting-age women with ready access to their U.S. birth certificates have a birth certificate with current legal name – and only 66% of voting-age women with ready access to any proof of citizenship have a document with current legal name.
Other voting restrictions involve eliminating Election Day registration, curtailing or eliminating early voting, and striking felons off the rolls. It should be remembered that these Photo ID laws can be used to prevent you both from registering to vote and from voting at the polls even if you are registered.
To get a sense of the power of this movement towards restricting the franchise, consider this. Since 2010:
At least thirty-four states introduced legislation that would require voters to show photo identification in order to vote. Photo ID bills were signed into law in seven states: Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. By contrast, before the 2011 legislative session, only two states had ever imposed strict photo ID requirements. The number of states with laws requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification has quadrupled in 2011. To put this into context, 11 percent of American citizens do not possess a government- issued photo ID; that is over 21 million citizens. On November 8, 2011, Mississippi also passed a constitutional amendment by ballot initiative, requiring government-issued photo ID to vote.
Proof of citizenship laws have been passed in Alabama, Kansas, and Tennessee. Nine other states have bills in the hopper.
It should be noted that all these voting restrictions have been enacted in states with Republican legislatures and governors. It shouldn't surprise us, then, that a 2008 study (pdf) by Profs. Matt A. Barreto (University of Washington), Stephen A. Nuño (Northern Arizona University), and Gabriel R. Sanchez (University of New Mexico), found that Indiana's restrictive voting laws hurt the Democrats and disproportionally impacted blacks. Nor should it surprise us that the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division recently said the same thing about South Carolina's voter restriction law.
In its first decision on the laws, Justice’s Civil Rights Division said South Carolina’s statute is discriminatory because its registered minority voters are nearly 20 percent more likely than whites to lack a state-issued photo ID. Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, South Carolina is one of a number of states that are required to receive federal “pre-clearance” on voting changes to ensure that they don’t hurt minorities’ political power.
“The absolute number of minority citizens whose exercise of the franchise could be adversely affected by the proposed requirements runs into the tens of thousands,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez said in a letter to South Carolina officials.
Blacks are the least likely to have a state-issued Photo ID, women are the least likely to have proof of citizenship in their current name, and students are least likely to have an ID with a current address. Many seniors who no longer drive, also lack state-issued Photo ID. All but the latter group consistently show a preference for the Democratic Party. So, is there really any question that these laws have been enacted for a partisan purpose? Attorney General Eric Holder certainly thinks so. In a December 13, 2011 speech at the LBJ Library, he made that clear:
"Only we, the people, can bring about meaningful change. So speak out. Raise awareness about what’s at stake. Call on our political parties to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success and, instead, encourage and work with the parties to achieve this success by appealing to more voters. And urge policymakers at every level to reevaluate our election systems – and to reform them in ways that encourage, not limit, participation."
This was part of a broader point that Holder was making. While he was announcing that the Department of Justice was reviewing new restrictive voting laws, he was also telling us that he can't do everything alone.
…there will always be those who say that easing registration hurdles will only lead to voter fraud. Let me be clear: voter fraud is not acceptable – and will not be tolerated by this Justice Department. But as I learned early in my career – as a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, where I actually investigated and prosecuted voting-fraud cases – making voter registration easier is simply not likely, by itself, to make our elections more susceptible to fraud. Indeed, those on all sides of this debate have acknowledged that in-person voting fraud is uncommon. We must be honest about this. And we must recognize that our ability to ensure the strength and integrity of our election systems – and to advance the reforms necessary to achieve this – depends on whether the American people are informed, engaged, and willing to demand commonsense solutions that make voting more accessible.
Naturally, the Republicans deny that the purpose of these laws is to confer some electoral advantage on themselves, or to disenfranchise blacks, Latinos, women, students, or the elderly. They claim that the laws are meant to prevent voter fraud. And their messaging is very compelling and effective. If we need a Photo ID to open a bank account or get a mortgage, why shouldn't we need one to vote? It's a persuasive argument in the majority of American communities where we drive to work and do things like open bank accounts and take out mortgages. But, I can tell you from personal experience that there are other communities in this country where very few people have access to cars and they have no money to put into savings accounts or a down payment on a house.
In 2004, I worked for ACORN/Project Vote as the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania coordinator for voter registration and Get Out the Vote efforts. Our main office was located on North Broad Street in Philadelphia. I hired, trained, and deployed young adults, almost all of whom were poor and black, to canvass targeted neighborhoods. Almost none of them had a state-issued Photo ID. Very few of the people we registered to vote had a state-issued Photo ID. They didn't need one. ACORN registered over a million voters that year. Our reward was to become the number one target of Fox News, the Mighty Republican Wurlitzer, and the Bush Justice Department. A couple of years later, ACORN was destroyed by a misinformation campaign led by Andrew Breitbart and James O'Keefe. If you have looked at today's headlines, you'll see that they are at it again, this time trying to prove how easy it was to commit voter fraud in the New Hampshire primary. They scanned the New Hampshire obituaries during December and then showed up at the polls and attempted to impersonate the deceased. Unsurprisingly, one of them was caught, which is precisely why almost no one tries to vote for the dead. You might be inclined to shrug off such stunts, but these folks are waging a partisan war on our voting rights.
So, what can you do about it? Let me relate a little story to you. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia was at Selma that day back in 1965. A police officer fractured his skull. After LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act, he invited John Lewis into the Oval Office. Here is what happened, as told by Lewis in his book Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, (p. 361):
Johnson dominated the conversation, his legs propped on a chair, his hands folded back behind his head. We talked for about twenty minutes, and near the end of the meeting the President leaned forward and said, "Now John, you've got to go back and get all those folks registered. You've got to go back and get those guys by the balls. Just like a bull gets on top of a cow. You've got to get 'em by the balls and you've got to squeeze, squeeze 'em till they hurt."
Mind you, LBJ was saying this to Lewis a mere five months (almost to the day) after Lewis had almost been killed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. You and I don't have to do anything nearly as courageous as what John Lewis was asked to do, and did. But we do have a responsibility to honor that legacy and fight back, because, today, we're the ones with our balls in a vice. We are no longer on offense.
The first thing we need to do is have a vehicle to organize around. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis provided that vehicle in December 2010 when he introduced a bill that would ban a state-issued voter ID requirement in federal elections. Later this month, he is going to reintroduce this bill. In coordination with Democracy for America, Ellison will be hosting a telephone town hall with activists to talk about the details of the bill and what you can do to stop the attack on voting rights. The details of how to sign up for the call will be announced on Martin Luther King Day, January 16th. I will keep you posted. This is an important first step in the campaign to end this trend of disenfranchisement.
Let's remember something else that LBJ said at the Joint Session of Congress on March 15, 1965, eight days after Selma's Bloody Sunday:
"For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government--the government of the greatest nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country--to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man. In our time we have come to live with the moments of great crises. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues, issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression.
But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For, with a country as with a person, "what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"
We can't stand by while the latest device of which human ingenuity is capable (the fear of non-existent voter fraud) is used to deny our voting rights. As LBJ said, "There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to insure that right."