Blogs > Jim Loewen > Registering to Vote, Then and Now

Sep 18, 2012

Registering to Vote, Then and Now

Voter registration begins at the Magnolia Motel in Prentiss, Mississippi, August 25, 1965. Credit: Winfred Moncrief.

During the summer of 1965, while a graduate student, I ran the "Social Science Lab" at Tougaloo College in Madison County near Jackson, Mississippi. "Ze Lab" was the creation of Dr. Ernst Borinski, a refugee from Hitler's Germany who taught at Tougaloo from 1947 until his death in 1983. Borinski was a remarkable man -- an inspirational professor who used his status as outsider to cross boundaries between white and black Mississippi on behalf of social change. He is one of the main subjects of the book, movie, and now museum exhibit, From Swastika to Jim Crow.

On August 25 of that summer, the U.S. sent federal voting registrars to several counties in Mississippi. These were counties that had proven particularly reluctant to register African Americans to vote. The next day, curious to see the scene for myself, I drove to Canton, county seat of Madison County. There the registrars had rented a vacant storefront on the courthouse square.

What I saw was a Day of Jubilee. A card table with a folding chair on which sat a white registrar were the only furnishings in the otherwise bare room. From this table, in a line that stretched to the door, African Americans waited calmly to register. Outside, the line became double and stretched east to the end of the block, where it turned south, ran another block, reached the corner, turned west, and reached the end of that block. The wait time was more than a day, until the Department of Justice added two more card tables and two more registrars. Those waiting seemed not to mind. Some had been waiting for decades to register to vote; another day wouldn't exhaust their patience. A spirit of Jubilee -- not boisterous, just quiet satisfaction -- floated in the air. Everyone in line knew that the Democrats, the party of white supremacy, had for decades made it extremely difficult if not flatly impossible for African Americans to vote in Mississippi and especially in Madison County. Now it was their turn.

That scene -- with its hopeful masses yearning for democracy -- impressed itself on my mind. It returned when I read reporter Ann Gerhart's poignant account of Cheryl Ann Moore's successful attempt to get a non-driver photo ID card so she could vote in 2012.

The situations are not the same. Ms. Moore had registered to vote when she was 19; she is now 54. She lives in Pennsylvania, not Mississippi. The Republicans, not the Democrats, are now the party of white supremacy. But it is safe to say that the party in power in the state of Pennsylvania in 2012 is doing what it can to keep black (and poor and transient and Latino) voters from voting. So are Republicans in South Carolina, Virginia, and several other states.

In Mississippi in the early 1970s, I testified for the U.S. Department of Justice, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the American Civil Liberties Union in several voting rights cases. I showed statistically that whites voted overwhelmingly for white candidates, blacks voted almost as overwhelmingly for black candidates, and blacks produced fewer votes than whites, per capita. Indeed, a 65/35 advantage in total population was required to provide African Americans with a 50/50 shot at winning an election. That was because, on average, African Americans had more children, so a total population 65% black would be only about 60% black in voting age population. In turn, because it was harder for African Americans to register to vote, a 60/40 advantage in voting age population led to a 55/45 advantage in registered voters. Finally, because it was harder for African Americans to get to the polls and vote and vote freely, a 55/45 registration advantage translated to a tossup election.

I was testifying about the obstacles facing poor black would-be voters when a Mississippi judge interrupted me to ask, "Tell me, do you think that illiterate people should vote?" His question took me by surprise, but I managed on that occasion to answer well. "I do," I replied, and went on to explain why: Illiterates can vote better on their own behalf than anyone else can do for them. After all, they know their own situation and their own minds better than anyone else.

Historically, illiterate recently-freed African Americans voted in massive numbers across the South during Reconstruction. Indeed, they voted in substantial numbers in the North as well. And they voted their interests responsibly. Of course they voted Republican, despite efforts by Democrats to persuade or coerce them to do otherwise. Across the South, they also voted for the best state constitutions that the Southern states have ever had, far better than the constitutions under which they operate today.

Afterward, Democrats concocted canards about the behavior of African American and white Republican voters during Reconstruction. About voter fraud in South Carolina, a 1911 article in Confederate Veteran said this:

Armed troops were kept at every county seat to uphold negro rule and encourage him to vote the Republican ticket as often as he pleased, the Republicans by this means running up great majorities.

Such statements are simply not true. I suspect I need not belabor that claim for this audience. Confederate Veteran went on to decry the usual "carpetbaggers and scalawags" who committed "disgraceful scenes at the statehouse in Columbia."

Today Republicans, not Democrats, are voicing untrue claims about vote fraud. In South Carolina, Republicans cobbled together a collection of stories about individual fraudulent voters from other states to back their contention that their state needed a new voter ID law. In reality, as historian Vernon Burton noted in his expert witness report in the lawsuit challenging this law, "no bill sponsors, election administrators, or members of the testifying public could identify any verified instances of voter fraud that would be addressed by the voter ID law." Ironically, South Carolina already had voter ID cards; they just weren't photo ID cards. Still, they had accomplished their purpose without any problem, if that purpose was to prevent vote fraud.

The new voter ID law had a very different purpose. As Democratic Representative David Mack put it, "The Republican Party benefits from a low voter turnout. The Democratic Party benefits from a better, high voter turnout. That's what it's all about." [Tr. of House Debate, 1/26/2011, 57.] Indeed, the law had a racial purpose that Senate GOP Caucus Director Wesley Donehue made overt. Reporter Jim Davenport wrote a story for the Associated Press that said, "South Carolina's new voter photo identification law appears to be hitting black precincts in the state the hardest." Donehue responded by linking to Davenport's article and tweeting, "Nice! @jimdavenport_ap proves EXACTLY why we need Voter ID in SC." Burton amasses much other evidence that decreasing the black vote -- which of course goes overwhelmingly Democratic in South Carolina -- was the key Republican goal.

The same story played out in Pennsylvania. Last March, Republican majorities in the Pennsylvania House and Senate passed a photo ID law ostensibly to eliminate fraud. After it passed, however, Mike Turzai, majority leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, let the real purpose out of the bag. He was videotaped proclaiming to a group of fellow Republicans, "Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania -- done!"

As in South Carolina, Pennsylvania leaders admitted they had no evidence of any fraud that the new law might combat. Indeed, they stipulated in the court proceeding now underway, "There have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania; and the parties do not have direct personal knowledge of any such investigations or prosecutions in other states."

As in South Carolina, Pennsylvania Republicans professed not to understand how the new law burdened the lower class. Tom Corbett, governor of the state, "estimated that 99 percent of the state's 8,300,000 voters already had an acceptable PennDOT ID," according to Gerhart. That would leave fewer than 83,000 without the right to vote. Actually, the governor was way off; his own Department of State estimated 758,000, more than 9 percent of the electorate, lack an acceptable ID. Republicans also profess not to understand how anyone can function in society without already having an official photo ID. Obviously, they have never been inside one of the check-cashing establishments that dot poor neighborhoods from large cities to small towns across America.

Gerhart followed one about-to-be disfranchised person, Ms. Moore, as she got her photo ID card. Moore owns her own home in Philadelphia. For twenty-four years, she has been a hospital custodian. Like many urban residents, she has no car and no driver's license. She has no bank account and has cashed her paycheck at the same store every two weeks for years.

Knowing it would take a long time, she devoted a vacation day to getting her ID card. She got to the office at about 11:30 am and was given ticket #C809, a clipboard, a two-page form, and a pen. Her estimated wait time was 63 minutes. By 12:30 pm, having skipped breakfast, she was hungry, and the number being served was just #C765, so she went to Subway for lunch. When she returned, every seat was taken, so she sat on a heating vent at the back. The office does not do voter IDs on Mondays. One can only imagine what the crowds will look like in October.

At 1:10 pm, Moore had been there for more than an hour and a half, but the office was only up to #C773. She worried that they might not take cash for the $13.50 fee, so she went outside to a store and bought a money order for that amount. Finally, at 1:42 pm, she stepped up to the window and handed in her paperwork. Since she was already registered, she had filled out the wrong form. She filled out another two-page form and returned. A clerk "phoned the Philadelphia Board of Elections," in Gerhart's account, "and, after a wait, verified she was, indeed, registered to vote. Ten minutes later, she directed Moore to print and sign her name on a sheet of paper labeled 'Examiner's Report.'" Moore proved her residency with the address stub from her paycheck. She swore an oath. The result, at 2:10 pm, was another ticket, A230, to get in the photo line. At 3:25 pm, she heard her number called and "scampered over to the camera, only to have the clerk take #A231 and the man standing behind her."

"Hey!" she called out, "I'm right here!"

The photo clerk said he had already called her number three times and demanded she get a new number! "This is bullshit," she replied. "At the end of all this?" Finally, another clerk took her photo and gave her her ID card.

As in Canton, Moore seemed not to mind her four-hour wait. She grinned, kissed the card, and said "I feel good!" I would have been livid. Republicans would have been livid. Republicans (if you'll pardon a mild overgeneralization) aren't used to waiting for hours in a government bureaucracy to regain a right that they had lost through no fault of their own.

Voters in rural areas aren't as fortunate as Ms. Moore. They can't take the bus to the DMV. They have to drive, but of course precisely those who need non-driver voter IDs cannot drive. Voters who have lost (or never had) an original "raised-seal" birth certificate aren't so fortunate either. Neither are voters who have misplaced their original Social Security card. It can require several trips, with waiting periods, to several offices, just to get the documentation required to get a photo ID.

Faced with these problems, Republicans allowed an amendment to substitute photo IDs from institutions of higher learning and nursing homes, if they had expiration dates. Then it turned out that the IDs at 91 of 110 colleges and universities in Pennsylvania had no expiration dates. And the idea of an "expiration date" on a nursing home ID is too macabre to contemplate. "Death panels" indeed!

Political scientists can predict the proportion of registered voters who will not or cannot jump through these hoops and will therefore be disfranchised. No doubt Rep. Turzai had seen such an estimate when he predicted that the requirement would allow Romney to win Pennsylvania. Certainly the law is working: through 9/11/2012, according to Gerhart, the state had issued just 7,500 voter ID cards. Can you imagine what would happen if the United States sent voting registrars to Pennsylvania (or South Carolina)? The lines would stretch out around the block.


Copyright James Loewen

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