Exile on Jones street: The bad old days

0
33

kirk rossby Kirk Ross

There’s been a lot of noise surrounding voting and election-law changes in North Carolina.

What cuts through is that the effect will benefit the candidates of one party over another. That, as Keats said, “is all ye need to know.”

There are chunks of the recent election law changes that are purely legit technical modifications and some parts that could count as actual reforms. But there are others, like reducing early-voting and eliminating same-day registration, that are clearly aimed at manipulating the law for political advantage.

Before you get out your “Yeah, but the Democrats did it” air horn, let me point to an important distinction: For several decades running, the method to gain political advantage employed by Democrats was to increase the number of people voting. The effect of the new laws will be to reduce the number of people eligible to vote.

Since it is hard to escape that fact, there is an awful lot of spin out there justifying making it harder to vote — from cries of voter fraud to pundits musing that maybe people ought to have to take a test to vote.

Maybe we should cut some slack to the folks who don’t know history enough to recognize they are advocating a return to the bad old days. But we’re not talking about ancient history, just a recent history we were quick to forget — a history of literacy tests and poll taxes and other various laws on the books that were used to intimidate voters.

Here’s a test: Recite the preamble to the Constitution of the United States, all 52 words, without missing a word.

That’s what Rosanell Eaton experienced as an 18-year-old voting for the first time in Franklin County. Now in her nineties, she’s trying to keep her right to vote. I watched her give a speech and then get arrested at the legislature during a Moral Monday protest last year.

One of the plaintiffs in the suit against the state’s new voting laws, Eaton and others are fighting not just over what is written down in the law books, but because of firsthand experience of how such laws can be used. When she was 18 not everyone paid a poll tax or had to recite the preamble, just people that those in power wanted to disenfranchise.

To me, one of the most sinister aspects of the new law deals not with ID requirements but provisions on voting challenges, provisional ballots and a huge expansion of how many observers can watch over the polling places and scrutinize voters.

The words aren’t there, but the provisions certainly open a door to a past when harassment and intimidation were as much a part of campaigning as kissing babies.

Further evidence of the return to the bad old days came late last month in the form of a classic piece of dirty tricksterism, the misleading mailer.

This one, put out by American for Prosperity and marked “Voter Registration Documents Enclosed,” was pretty slick, but it wasn’t that far off from what has come before. We’ve seen mailings warning potential voters that they could be arrested if they try to vote without having their property tax up to date or if they try to vote in the wrong precinct. And without a doubt, even in 2014, someone somewhere in this state will get a postcard or a courtesy call reminding them to vote on Election Day, Wednesday Nov. 5.

It was a little shocking to see that most of the coverage of the AFP mailing failed to mention the prospect that the mailing could also be part of a vote-caging scheme.

We last saw one of these on a major scale in 1990 when Jesse Helms was running for re-election and 44,000 nasty, misleading cards went out. Cards that were returned as undeliverable were to be used to challenge voters.

Given the new law, more aggressive and more organized challenges are inevitable. And we’re just heading into a season of mailings and misleading ads.

If you don’t like this, if you don’t want to go back to the bad old days you’ll have to do something about it. Like vote.

Here’s a test: Live up to the preamble of the Constitution.