12/22/2013 10:14 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2014

More About a New Freedom Summer

Last week, in this space, I proposed a "Freedom Summer 2014", aimed at ensuring that nobody would be prevented from voting next fall due to the lack of a government-issued photo ID card. The 5-4 ruling of the Roberts Supreme Court last June in Shelby County v. Holder, overturning major sections of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, permitted all sorts of mischief by Republican state officials aimed at raising obstacles to the right to vote.

My thought was that an army of volunteers, making sure that everyone had the necessary ID, would shame rightwing officials trying to suppress the right to vote and mobilize lots of voters in an off-year that is likely to be difficult for progressives.

In the week since I wrote that post, I've gotten a lot of email. Nobody thinks this is a bad idea. The only question is whether a new Freedom Summer could be pulled off at the necessary scale, and whether it could make a real difference.

In the course of digging deeper into those questions, here's what I've learned.
Not surprisingly, several groups already plan efforts to make sure that nobody is denied the right to vote. But the on-the-ground infrastructure in different states varies widely. Raising visibility and capacity through a unified campaign evoking the struggles of the civil rights era could make the whole bigger than the sum of its parts.

It is possible to have principled arguments with political conservatives on a wide array of public issues, ranging from late-term abortions to privatizing Social Security. But there is no principled debate about suppressing the right to vote. The creative use of obstacles to voting is sheer political opportunism.

There are a few conservatives who will say that voting is a privilege, not a right. But they are living in the wrong country or the wrong century. In our democracy, that issue was settled a long time ago. Voting is a right.

Then there is the matter of whether ID cards are a threat to liberty and privacy. A generation ago, that debate was a big deal. Some people, both liberals and conservatives, worried that government ID cards smacked of Big Brother. But in an era when the NSA tracks everyone's phone calls and emails, that debate seems quaint.

Most Americans nowadays have drivers' licenses or passports or both. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the federal government issued national standards for state ID. Anyone who files a tax return or is issued a Social Security card cannot be naïve about the fact that the government has a dossier on them. How to protect against the misuse of this information is a separate question.

It's difficult to function in modern society without photo ID. We would be doing a favor to the 11 percent of Americans who lack such ID, and not just for purposes of voting. It's harder to open a bank account or to persuade an employer (or patrolman) of your identity without proper ID.

Some people raised the question of whether reform groups, such as the Brennan Center for Justice that are litigating against the misuse of photo ID cards by rightwing officials, would support a campaign to get everyone a card. Would a voter-registration campaign lend legitimacy to the card requirement?

I actually think the two efforts are complements. The more that efforts were expended on getting people ID cards, the more it would smoke out attempts at voter suppression. That in turn would help litigators to identify and resist abuses.

Before a small army of students is turned loose to help people get photo ID cards to help them register to vote, there needs to be a critical mass of organizers who know the political territory. The NAACP is already planning a program called Freedom Summer 2014. Much of the NAACP's efforts will be a youth campaign pressing Congress to restore the sections of the Voting Rights Act overturned by the Roberts Court. That is crucially important work. A summer voter-registration campaign could be a complement.

In the original Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, a coordinating committee of civil rights groups, known as Council of Federated Organizations, or COFO, helped launch and organize the effort. The participating groups included the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the NAACP. A new coordinating committee for voter registration could include civil rights groups, as well as organizations committed to broad political reform.

In 1964, there was no Internet. But in a matter of a few months, using the telephone, organizers created a training school and recruited over a thousand volunteers, mostly students. Fifty years later, with voting being suppressed in more than a dozen states, we need a much larger national effort.

Thus far, I've been speaking of voting as a basic civic right. But let's not kid ourselves: there could be an immense partisan payoff to maximizing voting as well.

Nearly all of the forces suppressing voting today are Republicans. And for good reason. Most of the gain from expanding the franchise would go to Democrats. Many of the states that have added new and onerous obstacles to the right to vote are swing states such as North Carolina and Texas.

The sixth year of a presidential incumbency is seldom a good one for the incumbent's party. The year 2014 will be a rough year for Democrats on several counts. Some of the groups most inclined to support Democrats -- African Americans, Latinos, the poor, new voters, will be victims of voter suppression.

The launch problems with the Affordable Care Act are depressing -- and will depress turnout. Low income people, the unemployed, and citizens who ordinarily count on government for help, will be even more skeptical than usual because government is providing so little aid in hard times.

But a mass voter registration campaign could not only defeat deliberate barriers to voting. It could remind citizens of the importance of making their voices heard.

And such a campaign could also help politicize a student generation that is eerily passive in the face of economic assaults that stunt their futures. If the training and organizing infrastructure can be created, tens of thousands of students could get summer stipends to go into the field. Some of them, just like their parents and grandparents, could go on to become lifelong activists.

One irony: the same Roberts Court that overturned key sections of the Voting Rights Act also invalidated limits on political contributions. Donors friendly to Democrats could pour unlimited sums into non-partisan voter registration campaigns, whose net effect would be to help elect Democrats.

Fifty years ago, a generation of idealists bled and died to secure the right to vote. It is appalling, half a century later, that we have do this all over again. But we do.

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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