Scarcely 53 years ago — well within the lifetimes of many of our parents — now-Congressman John Lewis tossed an orange, an apple, a toothbrush, some toothpaste and two books into his backpack and prepared to lead a fifty-four mile march from Selma to Montgomery, AL.
The march was organized to call attention to de facto and de jure voter suppression that impeded thousands of African-Americans from casting ballots in the Deep South. By the end, Alabama state troopers had fractured Lewis’s skull and trampled his fellow marchers with their horses and subdued them with tear gas.
“Bloody Sunday,” as it became known, took place a full hundred years after the Civil War — long, long after the right to vote had technically been granted to African-Americans by the U.S. Constitution. Obviously, it wasn’t enough; literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and racist election officials were so effective in carrying out their oppressive objective that at the time of Bloody Sunday, only 383 of the 15,000 African-Americans in Selma’s Dallas County were registered to vote. Great progress was made just eight days later when President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to a joint session of Congress; the new law eliminated many unfair voting practices and Lewis remarked that Johnson “helped free and liberate all of us.”
But it still isn’t enough. On one hand, we certainly should be worried about Russia’s continued active measures to probe state election systems, sow divisions within the electorate on social media and stand in the way of our democratic processes. But on the other hand, an internal enemy lingers — one that is equally as threatening and much closer to home.
Since the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case Shelby County vs. Holder took the teeth out of the Voting Rights Act, voter suppression has advanced with a virulence that should give us all pause. Particularly flagrant and alarming cases have already come to fruition as the country gears up for the 2018 midterm elections.
Right in Congressman Lewis’s home state of Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is also currently the Republican candidate for governor, has stalled 53,000 new voter registrations, 70 percent of whom are black, because of alleged problems with their voter registration information. Kemp was the architect of Georgia’s “exact match” law, which requires voter information to be identical to other state records, or else the voter is moved to a pending list. As a candidate, he has not recused himself from oversight of his own election. Statistically speaking, many of the voters whose applications are currently pending are likely backers of Kemp’s opponent, Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams. Considering this overwhelming conflict of interest, perhaps the United Nations should monitor Georgia’s elections — the state, not the former Soviet-bloc country.
The egregious breach of power in Georgia is far from the only example of voter suppression taking root this very minute; it is merely an illuminating case study. But all acts of voter suppression have a commonality — they are based on a lie, justified by “voter fraud” that simply doesn’t exist. Kemp’s crusade for the “integrity of elections” is a farce. Of a sample of 23.5 million votes cast in 42 jurisdictions nationwide in 2016 — including eight of the 10 with the highest concentration of noncitizens nationally — only 30 were flagged for fraud investigation or prosecution, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. That’s 0.0001 percent. But the largely-Republican attempt to squelch voting goes on. Often, these efforts are targeted at minority communities with “surgical precision” (according to a federal appeals court that ruled some North Carolina voting laws unconstitutional). The fight that Lewis fought on Bloody Sunday is far from over.
As a country that prides itself on its proclaimed principle of “one person, one vote,” we know that simply holding elections is not enough for a fair democratic process. To be sure, Iraq under Saddam Hussein had “elections” every four years wherein Hussein won 98 percent of the vote. Similarly, opposition candidates in Russia’s elections are regularly disqualified on politically-motivated charges. In order to protect our legitimate democratic system — which we must remember is not a given in the rest of the world — we must do more than merely protect, we must revere the “free and fair” aspect of the elections that define a democratic society.
So, if the likes of Kemp feel like they must lie, cheat and con voters in order to be elected, their grasp on power must be pretty tenuous. It’s certainly going to be another long, hard march to unwind the many ways in which he and his contemporaries have damaged the freeness and fairness of our elections. We can start by sending them home packing in November.