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Art Levine

Art Levine

 

40 Years after MLK's Death: DOJ's War on Black Voters

Posted: 04/ 4/08 03:01 PM ET

While remembering the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King, it's worth noting that Republican operatives and the Bush administration's Department of Justice have turned back the clock on civil rights. They have created a new set of Jim Crow-like policies and strategies with a still-active goal: stopping blacks, who lean Democratic, from casting ballots that count.

Have Justice Department officials and GOP loyalists become essentially an upscale, white-collar version of the Klan, armed with voting lists on their Palm Pilots rather than burning crosses and guns to keep blacks from voting?

This week, a series of articles have been published online underscoring the ways that the racist restrictions of the past have been revived, in often disturbing ways. In the Huffington Post, I reported how the FBI ignored threats to jail voters in Dallas during a hard-fought 2006 state legislative race. The Campaign Legal Center today demanded an in-depth Justice Department probe of its failure to investigate this blatant violations of civil rights.

The full story behind these sorts of vote-suppressing schemes is told in the latest issue of The American Prospect, which explores, in "The Republican War on Voting," how local, state and federal officials and GOP operatives targeted the community group ACORN with phony claims of voter fraud because of its successful voter registration drives. The claims of widespread voter fraud live on in briefs supporting the Indiana photo ID law filed by the federal government, the state and conservative Republicans now before the Supreme Court.

What was once primarily a series of tactics stretching back from the evil days of the poll tax in the 1960s to "caging" and photo ID today, has become official Justice Department policy -- either by ignoring threats to black voting rights or active steps to disenfanchise them and most other low-income minorities. Steve Rosenfeld in Social Policy looks at the full scope of vote-suppression strategies pursued by the Justice Department, pulling together a complete picture of its lawsuits, rulings and advisory actions aimed at promoting photo ID, ignoring threats to the civil rights of blacks and promoting massive purging of voter rolls.

As Project Vote noted in an overview of these articles:

Three recent articles made available online this week - including two by Art Levine and one by Steve Rosenfeld - focus on the partisan subversion of the Department of Justice and show how partisan schemes to engage in widespread voter suppression targeted one of the most active defenders of the rights of poor people and people of color. These articles have exposed what amounts to an entire war waged by conservatives against the voting rights gains of the past generation. Taken in total, the picture that emerges shows nothing less than an attempt to take America back to days of segregation and Jim Crow except this time the marauders are wearing suits and ties and carry briefcases rather than wearing white hoods and sheets and burning crosses. Even more disturbing is their willingness to subvert the non-partisan nature of the nation's top law enforcement institution, the Department of Justice and commit the resources of the Federal government to the systematic disenfranchisement of American citizens.

As my piece in the American Prospect points out:

[Attacking ACORN has been part of] the Republican Party's ongoing nationwide campaign to suppress the low-income minority vote by propagating the myth of voter fraud. Using various tactics -- including media smears, bogus lawsuits, restrictive new voting laws and policies, and flimsy prosecutions -- Republican operatives, election officials, and the GOP-controlled Justice Department have limited voting access and gone after voter-registration groups such as ACORN. Which should come as no surprise: In building support for initiatives raising the minimum wage and kindred ballot measures, ACORN has registered, in partnership with Project Vote, 1.6 million largely Democratic-leaning voters since 2004. All told, non-profit groups registered over three million new voters in 2004, about the same time that Republican and Justice Department efforts to publicize ?voter fraud? and limit voting access became more widespread. And attacking ACORN has been a central element of a systematic GOP disenfranchisement agenda to undermine Democratic prospects before each Election Day.


Revelations that U.S. attorneys were fired for their failure to successfully prosecute voter fraud have revealed how fictitious the allegations of widespread fraud actually were -- but the allegations haven't gone away. They live on in all the vote-suppressing laws and regulations that will likely affect this year's election, in GOP rhetoric and, most recently, in the arguments presented by champions of Indiana's restrictive voter-identification law in a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, progressives have tended to pay more attention to Election Day dirty tricks and to electronic voting machines than to a more systemic threat: the Republican campaign to suppress the votes of low-income, young, and minority voters through restrictive legislation and rulings, all based on the mythic specter of voter fraud. Those relatively transient voters, drawn to the polls this year by the Obama and Clinton campaigns, could find themselves thwarted in November and thereafter by the GOP-driven regime of voting restrictions -- particularly if, as many observers believe, the Court upholds Indiana's restrictive law before it adjourns this June.

Voter fraud is actually less likely to occur than lightning striking a person, according to data compiled by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. As Lorraine Minnite, a Columbia University professor, observed in the Project Vote report, The Politics of Voter Fraud, "The claim that voter fraud threatens the integrity of American elections is itself a fraud."

While we remember Dr. King, there's still a long way to go to achieve the voting rights he fought so hard to achieve.