THE BLOG
12/15/2013 10:52 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2014

Needed: Freedom Summer 2014

For more than a decade, progressive Democrats have placed their hopes on demographic changes. The electorate is becoming blacker, browner, younger, and more welcoming of diverse immigrant groups -- people who tend to be more liberal on a broad range of social issues, people who also rely on affirmative government.

Serious political scientists such as Ruy Teixeira and John Judis, among others, have written numerous well-documented articles and books on this emerging progressive majority. All it will take is for Democrats to survive mishaps such as the recession and the rollout of the Affordable Care Act -- and Republican views will increasingly be the minority.

Red states such as Texas will turn purple, purple ones such as Colorado, New Mexico and North Carolina will turn blue, and blue states like California will turn even bluer.

But these projections of demography-as-destiny left out one detail -- increased voter suppression. The emerging electorate will produce reliable Democratic majorities only if people in these demographic groups, many of them poor, are able to vote.

Until a highly partisan Supreme Court last June nullified Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department had done a decent job of rejecting flagrant maneuvers by Republican state officials to erect new barriers to voting. Section 5 required changes in voting procedures in states with histories of repressing minority voting to be pre-cleared by the Justice Department.

By invalidating Section 4 and effectively blocking the use of Section 5, the 5-4 Court majority in Shelby County v. Holder disingenuously held that the abuses that led Congress in 1965 to require states to be supervised by federal authority no longer existed, because the civil rights revolution and done its work. That bogus premise did not last even a day. As soon as the Court had ruled, officials in several states, led by Mississippi and Texas, moved quickly to erect new barriers. Photo ID cards that had been overruled by the Justice Department were reinstated.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, held that the law was "based on 40 year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day." But Republican officials quickly made a liar of Roberts by demonstrating that discrimination was alive and well once the Justice Department was compelled to stand down.

The new forms of voting suppression are being challenged under the more general and still extant Section two of the 1965 Act. But that sort of litigation takes time and the results are often inconclusive. In the meantime, great damage is done.

One such barrier is the demand for photo I.D. cards as proof of identity. The premise that this form of identity is needed to prevent voter fraud is itself fraudulent, because nobody has shown any evidence of widespread voting fraud. Yet since 2011, voter ID card laws have been passed by Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

To the well-educated elite, which is accustomed to flashing passports and drivers licenses, it seems improbable that a photo ID card requirement could truly function as a barrier to voting. But millions of very poor people don't have drivers licenses or passports, and getting a photo ID is one more hassle in a stressed out life. According the Brennan Center, as many as 11 percent of eligible voters do not have government-issued ID, and most of them are minority, poor, or elderly.

In addition, the reduction in public services leaves many of the poor skeptical that government or politics can make much difference in their lives. The Republican destruction of government has done its work all too well.

In the summer of 1964, more than a thousand people, many of them out-of-state college students, risked their lives in Mississippi Freedom Summer, to register African American voters. Three were murdered, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. 37 black churches and at least 30 black homes were bombed or burned.

At that time, an official reign of terror made it all but impossible for blacks in Mississippi to register and vote. Today, the barriers in many Republican led states are more subtle but the effect is the same -- a deliberate suppression of minority voting.

The impact of freedom summer was electric. It added to the pressure on Congress to pass what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But first, there had to be more marches, more murders, and finally, after the Selma marches and LBJ's stunning "We Shall Overcome" speech, the federal guarantee of the right to register and vote -- in the same Act whose key provision the Roberts Court has overturned.

What we need is a new Freedom Summer 2014, half a century after the original. If the forces of reaction are demanding photo ID cards, let's just go door to door and make sure that every eligible voter gets one.

In the process, we can remind people why the right to vote in a democracy is precious, why it can make a difference. We can turn ID cards into a badge of active citizenship, and turn the politics of voter suppression on its head.

Demographics aside, the 2014 elections are going to be very tough for Democrats and progressives. In the sixth year of a presidential incumbency, the president's party almost always loses seats in Congress. 2014 is looking even riskier than usual because the botched launch of Obama Care is rubbing off on other Democrats. People who might normally look to government in a prolonged economic slump are at risk of succumbing to passivity because government is offering such little help.

A new Freedom Summer could reverse the impact of the attempted voter suppression and mobilize voters -- not just to elect progressives but to demand a more responsive government. It could teach the right a lesson about citizenship and teach the Democrats something about leadership.

Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos.

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