“Be vigilant, for nothing one achieves lasts forever,” cautions Moroccan poet and writer Tahar Ben Jelloun.
Though he didn’t say these words, this was the creed of my dearly departed friend, civil and voting rights warrior Lawrence Guyot. He cherished the franchise.
He was nearly beaten to death by Southern whites in the 1960s for registering black voters, and he was fighting from his sickbed to protect and preserve it against modern day voter suppression tactics used in the 2012 presidential election until his last dying breath. He passed in November at the age of 73.
“Us can’t get tired until us is free!” he often shouted. A legal scholar, Mr. Guyot always cautioned against resting on your laurels and thinking that civil rights struggles were over. Laws can be reversed almost as easily as they are enacted, he warned. Witness how the conservative U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to revisit the 1965 Voting Rights Act and affirmative action via the Fisher v. Univ. of Texas case this year.
Watching the “underhanded” antics this week championed by the National Republican Party at its winter meeting in Charlotte, N.C., and carried out in the sly state senate chamber of the neighboring Virginia General Assembly, I couldn’t help but hear Mr. Guyot’s passionate words ringing in my ears to beware and to be vigilant.
Coincidentally, during the GOP’s winter meeting where they discussed strategies to avert future election defeats, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal advised his fellow Republicans that they need to “stop being the stupid party.” The GOP also needs to stop being the sneaky party, too.
Like a broad daylight band of bank robbers, 20 Republican members of the Old Dominion’s state senate waited until one Democrat, Henry Marsh III, was attending President Obama’s second inaugural to hastily ramrod a partisan vote on a shady redistricting plan to change the makeup of all 41 senate districts. This gerrymandering tactic would expand the GOP’s voting power in the state’s legislative body and could have national implications. Mr. Marsh’s absence left the senate Democrats with 19 votes to the Republican’s 20.
The state Republican senators provided no prior notice, no public hearings and they limited the debate to 40 minutes.
To add insult to injury, Virginia GOP leaders disingenuously claimed their new voting lines would create a new majority black district. They failed to mention how cramming black voters into one district increased the advantages of Republicans in surrounding districts. To pour salt in the wound, they pulled this chicanery, on the day of (Barack Obama’s second inauguration?) and the day the nation celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday. He and Mr. Guyot are rolling over in their graves.
Mr. Marsh reportedly called the action “shameful.” The civil rights leader and the first black mayor of Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, told the Huffington Post that he was “certain that despite what Republicans claim – this plan is a massive step backwards for the cause to which I have dedicated my life.”
Democratic State Senator Don McEachin, who was present, reportedly called the hasty action “secretive” and “underhanded.” The Democrats need to challenge these measures and undoubtedly they will.
Even Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell reportedly said, “This is not a good way to do business.” Online petitions are being circulated in hopes of swaying the governor to veto his colleagues in the senate.
Not content to stop there, Virginia Republicans are taking the playbook from their national leaders even further to employ all manner of regressive legislation to suppress voters who handily defeated them in the November elections. Other states led by Republican governors and conservative legislatures are following suit, or already have passed similar bills to increase their odds.
Deeply troubling was the short lived proposal to change the way the swing state’s Electoral College votes could be counted in future elections. Had the measure not been killed on Tuesday, those votes would no longer be a winner-take-all count of the popular vote. Instead they would have been allocated by voting districts that would effectively give greater weight to rural and suburban white districts over “urban,” counts in black and brown districts. Maine and Nebraska already count this way. Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are expected to enact similar bills.
The Republicans’ effort to change the Electoral College votes, Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Mike Tate said was “an audacious attempt to rig the system.”
Remember GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan of Wisconsin faulted their loss of “urban” voters who they underestimated in the turnout as their major cause of defeat.
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called the potential change “a diabolical scheme.” He said: “They’re so bold. It’s an example of ‘if you don’t like the results, then change the rules.” He noted that had Electoral College votes been tallied according to voting districts, President Obama would have lost.
Leaving no stone unturned, the Virginia Republicans also are proposing to limit the types of official forms of identification voters needs to present at polling precincts to be able to cast a ballot in the next election. For example, they propose eliminating a utility bill with your address as a valid form of identification.
Then, the state Republicans even proposed changes to their own state party rules for selecting candidates in their primary elections. In the past, a GOP candidate had to secure 10,000 signatures on their petitions; now a GOP primary candidate needs half that number.
Don’t forget, Virginia used to require a poll tax to discourage black voters. Good thing, however, due to Virginia’s prior tainted history with voting rights, the Justice Department can step in under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (until the Supreme Court gets to it) and review these questionable election proposals and the redistricting lines to make sure they are constitutional and do not amount to voter suppression. The DOJ should do just that if these measures pass.
We who carry Mr. Guyot’s legacy, also must remain ever vigilant to keep the franchise as easily accessible to as many voters as possible and stop these voter suppression shenanigans, not matter what political affiliation.