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.”
Opponents of Voter ID, a legal measure that has hit the political landscape in a wave of state legislative maneuvers and referendums, spit at such talk as delusional and lacking on pure numbers. Whether or not GOP-fueled fears and gossip is true, it doesn’t change the fact that beneath 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.
Moral optics clearly don’t favor Republicans, who want to win at all costs. Nine states, mostly clustered in the South, require some form of legitimate identification to vote; over 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, Crayola crayon colorful interactive map at its website.
Many of the laws are passed in states with large African American populations – the same demographic that provided Democrats with enough bounce in 2008 to catapult the current President, Barack Obama, into the White House.
And Republicans have been fuming ever since.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) President Ben Jealous takes that a step further, believing they’re really angry about the color of the cat in the White House than they are about the politics. “You’re talking about the oldest and most successful head game in the realm of racist politics,” argues Jealous in a conversation with Politic365, rattling off a chronology of key moments in history where the Black vote has been suppressed. Like a college professor on a Starbucks Double Shot, Jealous eagerly gives the run down, 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 much in part by the Obama’s win in 2008. Since then, “more bills have been pushed through to limit access to 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 required 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, adding 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.
Jealous dismisses that argument, reminding critics that high poverty rates in the Black community present unique and, many times, unusual circumstances. “What’s our advice to those who have IDs: get one. As long as we have a new poll tax in place, then we’re going to have to be prepared.”
“But, people have to realize that, first, there are students in college who move around a lot and don’t have a formal ID. Second, it has to do with the poverty: people who rent move around quite a bit or people without cars just don’t have a drivers’ license.” Jealous likens the situation to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina when the government officials were stunned by the massive number of folks who stayed in New Orleans. “The poverty in New Orleans is extreme. People didn’t have cars to leave. They couldn’t just pack up and run.”
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. and they’ll stare at you in befuddled “Voter ID … what?”
Ask those younger and under the age of 25 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.”