Publicly and privately, most Republican strategists tout the party line on Voter ID. Publicly, it’s on principle, they say, with legions of conservative think tankers, fellows and analysts providing “reams” of data and evidence on hints and instances of “voter fraud.”
“The fraud denialists also must have missed the recent news coverage of the double voters in North Carolina and the fraudster in Tunica County, Miss., — a member of the NAACP’s local executive committee — who was sentenced in April to five years in prison for voting in the names of ten voters, including four who were deceased,” said Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky. “And the story of the former deputy chief of staff for Washington mayor Vincent Gray, who was forced to resign after news broke that she had voted illegally in the District of Columbia, even though she was a Maryland resident.”
Still, opponents of Voter ID, a legal measure that has hit the political landscape in a wave of state legislative maneuvers and referenda, dismiss such talk as delusional and lacking on pure numbers. Whether or not GOP-fueled fears and gossip are true, it doesn’t change the fact that one of the most obscure legal battles in recent American history is actually turning into one of the most knuckle-up and personal fist fights of the 2012 election season.
Which is the point, argues one prominent white Republican consultant who refuses attribution due to close business and political ties within the African-American community. “This is about winning. Pure and simple,” says the source in a conversation with the Philadelphia Tribune. “This is, not really, about race or anything doing with racism like a lot of people on the left are claiming. I know it might look like that, but I think that a lot of people are really underestimating what lengths Republicans will go to just to win a race. And if that means disenfranchising a few people along the way, then that’s just the way it is.”
That the source insisted on anonymity speaks to the sensitive nature of the topic. The moral optics of the fight clearly do not favor Republicans, especially the voting blocs of state legislators who keep putting the measures in place in an effort to eliminate shenanigans at the polls. Nine states, mostly clustered in the South, require some form of legitimate identification to vote; more than two dozen states — including Pennsylvania — have some sort of Voter ID law in the proposed legislative pipeline. Key political battleground states like Ohio and Florida (known to turn the tide of an election) have “repressive election legislation” according to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, which shows it all on a big, colorful interactive map on its website.
Many of the laws are passed in states with large African-American populations – the same population that provided Democrats with enough bounce in 2008 to catapult Barack Obama into the White House.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) President Ben Jealous, thinks they’re more angry about the color of the man in the White House than they are about his politics. “You’re talking about the oldest and most successful head game in the realm of racist politics,” argues Jealous, who rattles off a chronology of key moments in history where the Black vote has been suppressed. Jealous eagerly gives the rundown, arguing that throughout this country’s history, there’s a direct correlation between major moments of progress for African Americans and the subsequently bad aftertaste of racist response. “You have to do the investigation and look back years ago. Voting bans today are identical to voting bans of years ago.”
To Jealous, it’s an all out assault, driven in part by the Obama’s win in 2008. Since then, he said, “more bills have been pushed through to limit ballot access than in any other time in U.S. history. When our democracy expands, people who object to the direction of it are going to find creative ways to suppress it.”
“The urgency is on state-sponsored voter suppression. These are laws that require multiple forms of Voter ID and there are, in many instances, thousands of older Black folks who don’t have the ID.”
The impression, based on Jealous’ observations and the standing consensus of many prominent Black political leaders and civil rights icons, is that Voter ID is the Battle of the Bulge. It’s an African American Alamo, the last big political stand of 2012 that requires just as much sweat, vocal push and blood – if need be – as the 1960s civil rights mass movements. There are two problems however.
On one hand, there’s a growing internal discussion within the Black political community that shows some cracks in that consensus. Some Black Republicans, many privately out of fear of public humiliation at the barbershops and churches, take their party’s line on the issue, claiming that it’s an embarrassment that Black leaders would actually admit that large numbers of Black folks don’t have one of the most common pieces of personal baggage in existence: their ID.
Consultant and strategist Raynard Jackson, however, is a bit more brazen and open about it. “To my knowledge, I have never heard anyone claim they were discriminated against if they were not allowed to fly or enter a government building because they didn’t have an I.D.,” blasts Jackson, who feels the “21st century poll tax” argument is overblown. “To the contrary, people know the rules in advance, so therefore they comply.”
“I don’t know anyone — young or old, Black or white — who doesn’t have any form of government sanctioned I.D.”
Former U.S. Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL), who is Black, won’t take Jackson’s side on that argument, but he has stunned Black politicos and civil rights types with his persistent charge on behalf of his home state’s Voter ID law – considered by the Lawyer’s Committee and other organizations as one of the most egregious in the South. “I was certainly critical of the Georgia Voter ID law,” Davis’ backtracks a little. “[But] I’ve looked at the issue and what Alabama has done over the past several months. Any Voter ID should make an exception for different circumstances and make identification available free of charge.”
Davis, a former member of the Congressional Black Caucus up until he suffered a stinging defeat in a gubernatorial primary in 2010, shifts uncomfortably these days at the accusation that he’s “sold out.” The tone in his voice gets considerably sharper when pitching Alabama’s voter ID law further, at some points pivoting. “There is a group of individuals out there who don’t have a driver’s license. Those individuals should have a chance to get identification, so they have the opportunity to vote. I don’t think a fair Voter ID law is going to disenfranchise any group of people.”
But, beyond the sparring and philosophical open-mic battles, the other problem deals with awareness.
It’s just not that sexy an issue.
Conduct an informal survey of average Black folks working to make ends meet in, say, North Philadelphia or Southeast D.C. on Voter ID, and chances are they’ll stare at you in befuddlement.
Ask those under the age of 25 and younger about it, and you’re likely to get more information on Nicki Minaj’s latest tattoo.
It’s a challenge Jealous is aware of. After speaking fluidly and almost non-stop for nearly 20 minutes on the topic, he’s reached a pause on that question. Still, he doesn’t sound frustrated. He just regains footing and boasts the confidence an NAACP president is supposed to have.
“The NAACP can always get as much attention as TMZ. You look at the Troy Davis situation where it was one of the most visible events in 2011,” says Jealous.
“We must make the conflict visible. And we are working state by state and nationally to make that happen. You finally start getting conversations on street corners and in barbershops. They have to understand that their right to vote is under attack.”