By Kirk Clay
Reflecting on the past, thinking of the present, and looking towards the future
Recently I was talking with a friend from Texas about the special election in Arizona to fill their 8th congressional district as the result of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords retirement. During that conversation we began talking about the American dream and the recent wave of political vitriol surrounding citizenship documents, birth certificates, and the removal of Voters of Color (VOC) from the voter rolls.
I spent a lot of time espousing the virtues of expanding democracy to include greater numbers of VOC. I believe that a diverse electorate may help to end the two year-long “do nothing” agenda. My friend pointed out that this opportunity to expand democracy is under attack by the wave of “voter suppression” laws and executive orders in multiple states. He noted that Texas Republicans passed a controversial law to concentrate on voting impostors. Thankfully, the Department of Justice will interrupt this effort by not granting a clearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
I thought about the fact that the landmark Voting Rights Act was first passed in 1965 to outlaw voting practices that disenfranchised thousands of Americans. States with both (a) “tests” or “devices” that restricted the opportunity to register and vote and, (b) less than 50% voter registration or voter turnout could no longer make changes with respect to voting without “clearance” from the Department of Justice. This includes everything from redistricting to polling places.
Here we are more than 45 years later in the 21st century with extremists who remain vigilant to make it difficult for Americans to participate in democracy. According to a comprehensive report by the Brennen Center, since 2011 more than two dozen states have passed or attempted to pass laws and executive orders that disenfranchise voters.
In Florida, the governor pressed election officials to identify non-U.S. citizens on the voting rolls. The list of 2700 people and comprised largely of people of color, was found to have a 78% error rate. More than 500 people on the list have been identified as actual citizens. This action by the governor has produced three federal lawsuits, including a lawsuit filed June 12th by the Department of Justice that claims Florida’s purge program violates two federal voting laws.
A Florida coalition of conscience which includes progressive Whites, Latinos, African Americans, Asians, Native Americans, Unions, and young voters are also contesting Gov. Scott’s efforts. Voters are fed up with partisan extremists. They remember the “pregnant chads” in 2000 which became part of the determining factor for George Bush receiving a 534 vote victory over Al Gore. During that same election cycle Florida’s Secretary of State had ordered election supervisors to purge ex-felons from the voter lists. Experts later reported that the list “flagged” close to 91,000 names of which more than 57,000 were purged. More than half of the list—54%—was African American and Latino.
Following the 2000 debacle, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002 to create standards for states to follow and to update outdated voting systems. HAVA required that each state transition to electronic voter lists.
Very important questions we should ask are “what will our democracy gain from implementing laws that will have a disproportionate impact on voters of color?” and “why would politicians throw away votes?” Have party politics become so polarized that politicians can’t avoid self-inflected wounds?
For example in Florida voters of color make up 29% of the voting age population and 69% are registered to vote. In 2008, voters of color were 28% of the electorate although more than a third did not vote. Imagine the impact that voters of color could have on advancing progressive policies if all who are eligible to vote were mobilized and voted.
The same is true for Texas, where the Latino population accounted for 65% of the State’s growth between 2000 and 2010. Among young voters between the ages of 18 and 19 year olds 60% are people of color and 41% Latino. Census data shows us that Houston grew by 7.5% to 2,099,451. Imagine what could happen in 2012 if we energize and turn out 814,000 registered VOC in Harris County? Especially in places like Houston where there are over 400,000 “Key” VOC.
Today, we have laws in place designed to ensure that the playing field is level. Our country needs every voter to participate in this election to ensure our government works for everyone. We are a team of 300 million Americans and we all love this country. Therefore, there is no excuse for denying an eligible voter the opportunity to vote. We must not compromise the promise of freedom especially if it compromises diversity.
Kirk Clay is Senior Advisor at PowerPAC