Clarence Mingo, a rising star in Ohio’s Republican party, offered cautionary advice to an overwhelmingly white group of his colleagues during a GOP platform planning meeting in late August: tread carefully and be honest with black voters.
Mingo’s words followed an amendment offered by Kansas’ controversial secretary of state Kris Kobach, who called for the party to support "true, robust photo ID laws" in its platform, which opponents say are disenfranchising core Democratic voting blocs that include the poor, disabled and minorities.
Mingo, the only African American Republican delegate from Ohio sent to this year’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., said the party must “demonstrate sincerity” and avoid using the issue for “political gain.”
“I think it is very important and critical that this language not be used for strategic political purposes,” Mingo said during the planning meeting, broadcast on C-Span. “Our efforts in this regard must be sincere, and that’s to prevent voter fraud. Any other message or any other suggestion that the party or this platform is attempting to suppress votes for political gain I don’t think will help our cause much, and that’s certainly not the intent of this body."
In more than a dozen states where new laws require that voters present state-issued photo identification to cast a ballot , lawsuits have been filed, rallies have been held and political leaders and footsoldiers have hunkered down for what likely will be protracted legal and political battles.
Opponents of voter ID laws say the laws will suppress votes of people who tend to vote for Democrats, including blacks and Latinos, the poor, college students and the elderly. As many as 25 percent of African Americans and 18 percent of Latinos don’t have government-issued photo ID, according to a recent study. Other reports indicate that as many as 1 million young minorities could be barred from voting by the new laws. And many elderly and poor voters may lack transportation to acquire the proper credentials.
Some Republican leaders have said publicly that voter ID laws will likely chip away some likely Democratic voters and help Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney win in states won narrowly by President Barack Obama in 2008.
Yet Republican leaders insist the laws are meant to prevent voter fraud, which studies have failed to find in more than a few cases. The Republican Party this summer threw its support behind voter ID laws by adding the issue to its official party platform, saying that “honest elections are the foundation of representative government” and that it “applaud[s] legislation to require photo identification for voting and to prevent election fraud."
“Every time that a fraudulent vote is cast, it effectively cancels out a vote of a legitimate voter,” the official GOP platform reads. “Voter fraud is political poison. It strikes at the heart of representative government.”
The fight is steeped in issues of race and class. And the manner in which groups on both sides of the issue have shaped the conversation as an all-or-nothing assault on voting rights or the last stand against vote-stealers leaves black Republicans like Mingo in a peculiar but powerful position.
Black Republicans, on voter ID and other issues largely drawn along partisan and racial lines, may play a pivotal role in shaping the party's understanding of African American sensitivities to voting rights issues.
“The Republican Party has done a terrible job, unequivocally, at shaping the discussion," said Tim Johnson, the founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a national organization of black Republicans. "But if people like me don’t get involved in the Republican Party, what's going to force them to change? Nothing."
Some black Republicans described the GOP as a party that is often, and rightly, perceived as racially and culturally tone-deaf in matters affecting black people. And their support of the party means they must endure the heat from fellow African Americans who criticize an allegiance to a party seen as hostile toward hard-fought civil rights victories.
“The way to address this is to be extremely sensitive,” Mingo told The Huffington Post.
Mingo, who was elected auditor of Franklin County, Ohio, in 2009 -- the rare black candidate to win a county-wide seat in the state -- said his peers initially pushed back against his becoming involved in Republican politics. Eventually, he said, they grew to "see me as more than just a Republican."
“I would certainly acknowledge that some voting populations might be impacted more than others,” by voter ID laws, Mingo said. But that's true of any policy that affects voting, he said. “I have no interest in seeing fundamental rights being infringed upon for political gain and I don’t believe that’s the interest of the majority of Republicans where voter ID is concerned.”
He continued: “I believe the real, sincere interest is in preventing voter fraud. Now having said that, we have to be very clear in sending a message that says this issue is about voter fraud and not voter suppression.”
Before 2008, only Indiana and Georgia had strict photo ID laws on the books. But following the historic election of Obama and record voter turnout among minority groups, Republican-led legislatures across the country passed strict new voting laws.
The laws have included cutbacks in early voting and photo ID requirements. Civil rights organizations have said the new barriers to voting are tantamount to Jim Crow-era poll taxes and discriminatory. The Justice Department has blocked laws in Florida, Texas and South Carolina -- states that require "pre-clearance" of any election law changes by the government under the Civil Rights Act. In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the recently enacted voter ID law.
Lenny McAllister, a conservative Republican media personality who is black, said the GOP has lost its way on the voter ID issue.
“If the efforts are not done with the necessary sensitivities to the recent past and the challenges of today's America, Republicans risk wearing the label of elitists and racists for years to come,” McCallister told The Huffington Post. “Voter ID laws can be about voter validation and empowering the process to its fullest, or it can be about suppression and questionable intent. Laws that prohibit hundreds of criminal cases at the risk of potentially locking out hundreds of thousands of Americans is not the best law guiding the most important of American rights: the right for self-determination through the power of the vote.”
Mingo, who served in the Army and is a veteran of the first Gulf War, said that while the party platform has “planks in it that could benefit African Americans,” it undoubtedly suffers from a lack of diversity.
Still, Mingo and other black Republicans said they see themselves as beacons of reason, particularly on thorny issues of race.
“We need champions on both sides,” Mingo said. “Throughout history African Americans have routinely worked our way to places that we previously did not have access to, and we have always been there representing our people, sometimes as the only ones in the room.
“I think the Republican Party has to be careful to understand that as much perspective as possible is crucial to forming effective policies,” he said. “And the Democratic party has an obligation to understand that the Republican perspective on views isn’t necessarily shrouded in racism and bigotry.”
Johnson, of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, called the voter ID issue a Democratic "distraction."
“I don’t think these laws target or disenfranchise people of color, if anything it was meant to ensure that we don’t have dead people voting or illegals voting,” Johnson said.
The so-called barriers presented by the laws make for a laundry list of “unjust excuses,” said Johnson, who admitted he had “voted blindly” for Democrats until about eight years ago.
Johnson said despite what opponents might say of today’s voter ID laws, they are a far cry from the 1950s and 1960s, when “we were discriminated against because of the color of our skin.”
“We have to now bring that to 2012, how is it that if we have a law that applies to all citizens -- not blacks, not whites, not Latinos -- but says that everyone needs valid identification, how is that racism?” Johnson said. “We can get the bling-bling, we can go get that 40-ounce, we can find a way to go to that club or go to the comedy show, to find a way to get that weave or that weed. We need, as black folks, to have a real conversation about what is really valuable to us.”
But as the conversation about voter ID laws grows louder, and more attention is being paid to minorities and voting rights, Johnson said it remains apparent that the Republican Party doesn’t want to “talk about blacks or those social issues that are important to blacks.”
The Republican Party has long “conceded the black vote,” Johnson said, bolstering the public image of only a few shining black Republican stars the likes of Florida Rep. Allen West or congressional candidate Mia Love of Utah. The others, he said, have been “isolated.”
“Often times [Republicans] take a slant and we use that to stir up feelings or conjure up those things that work toward our agenda," Johnson said. "But black Republicans are inside the rooms arguing with the party, saying you’ve got to do better, you’re making our lives hell out there while we’re working for the party, but you keep saying these dumb things or elevating these diabolical people,” Johnson said.
Meanwhile, he said, “we’re fighting the good battle.”