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The Smoke of Ocoee: The Assault on Voting Rights

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Aided and abetted by activist judges with grudges, America’s right wing has made it easier for corporations and harder for actual humans to influence elections. Let that sink in.

Corporations are people, the Right says, while actual people are in the way. In Pennsylvania and elsewhere, new voter suppression laws threaten to deny the franchise to millions of Americans. Meanwhile, corporations are funneling millions of dollars to candidates who promise to get those actual people out of the way of their inhuman ambitions.

Judges who have approved new burdens on would-be voters acknowledge that voters will be disenfranchised. You would think that would be the beginning and the end of the matter. Placing unnecessary barriers between voters and the ballot box is morally wrong and unconstitutional.

Federal Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner, whose 2007 opinion on the Indiana voter ID law led the way, acknowledged the certain disenfranchisement of voters. So be it, he said. Elsewhere, of course, Posner has written that the world is too complicated for voters, that shopping to boost the economy would be a better use of their limited intelligence.

In approving the Pennsylvania Voter ID law, Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr., a Republican, said he was sympathetic with the potentially disenfranchised, but that sympathy has no place in the courtroom. That’s news to several hundred years of jurisprudence. Anyway, as freelance journalist Patrick Kerkstra points out, it was a failure of empathy that blinded Simpson. He cannot believe there are elderly or poor people without driver’s licenses. And he thinks that if there are some, the state will make it easy for them to obtain IDs.

But read the testimony of a Pittsburgh citizen who just yesterday tried to get the promised free ID:

My original intention was just to change my driver’s license to a PA license, and I brought all the many required ID and residency forms plus cash and a credit card. I followed the instructions on the DMV website, but it turns out they forgot to mention only checks or money orders were acceptable. That’s not a big deal, the main thing is I wanted to make sure to have ID to vote with for the November election. So then I tried to get at least free state ID while I was at the DMV, because I want to vote. I was told I cannot get free state ID, because my driver’s license is still valid in another state. They won’t change the driver’s license for free, and they won’t give me a state ID for free, even though I have all the ID…

Yesterday marked the 92nd anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment that extended the franchise to women. The win took decades of heroic struggle. It is impossible to reconcile the judiciary’s cavalier attitude to voting rights with the courage and commitment of those in the suffrage movement.

That same kind of courage led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The Act reads:

No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.

How do judges dismiss the pain and violent deaths of civil rights activists that preceded passage of the Voting Rights Act? Really, Judge Posner? Don’t vote, shop?

It was 1920 when all American women of voting age could first vote in a presidential election. That same year, in Ocoee, Florida, now in the shadow of Disney World, a young black man tried to cast his vote. He was shot and hanged. Later that morning, another black man tried to vote. White racists exploded. The homes of five-hundred African-American residents were destroyed by fire. An undetermined number were murdered. Twelve-year-old Armstrong Hightower and his sister hid in an orange grove as their world turned to ashes. In 2001, then 93, Hightower paid a brief, sad visit to his old home place. He said he could still smell the fire.

The smoke should still burn the eyes of all Americans.

When Lyndon Johnson asked Congress to help him pass a voting rights act, he said:

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.

Today, those that would suppress the votes of their fellow Americans threaten both human dignity and the possibility of democracy.

I don’t know what’s going to happen when hundreds of thousands or millions of Americans are turned away from the polls this year for no reason other than failing to understand complicated, burdensome and unnecessary bureaucratic blockades to the franchise. It will be especially ugly if the GOP’s voter suppression plans work and Mitt Romney wins by a margin smaller than the number of disenfranchised voters.

Will Americans accept such an unjust outcome like we did in 2000? Will we peacefully acquiesce to the usurpation of the people? The smoke of Ocoee haunts us still.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith