Encourage High Voter Turnout to Offset Challenge
A panel discussion on voter suppression, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus [CBC], produced more than 90 minutes of pointed conversation, fireworks, verbal sparring – all a microcosm of the contentious nature of the issue playing out on the national stage.
The Rev. Al Sharpton and conservative commentator Crystal Wright wrangled most frequently during the town hall at the 42nd Annual Legislative Conference, each sparring, jostling to make their point, battling for verbal supremacy, dismissing the other's comments.
Beneath the lively exchanges at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest, is the very real situation that voting rights is under siege by Republican-led state houses which have proposed or instituted onerous voting laws panelists argued are adversely affecting constituencies who will most likely vote for President Barack Obama and Democrats.
"There are 181 restrictive voter ID laws that have been introduced all over the country," said Donna Brazile, veteran political strategist, academic and vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "Seventeen have passed and the impact is that 218 electoral votes are at stake. My mother told me that when you change the rules in the middle of the game, that's cheating!"
Brazile and others contend that the laws that are now present or being considered in 41 states are designed to disenfranchise minorities, the elderly, the poor, students, and disabled voters who are often less likely to have the types of IDs the GOP is demanding. At the same time, supporters insist the laws are necessary to maintain the integrity of the election process and prevent fraud.
Starting last year, panelists said, Republicans have been focused on turning the Nov. 6 election in their favor. In Texas, for example, prospective voters can register to vote with a gun or a hunting license but a student ID has been deemed insufficient by election officials.
Around the country, several panelists said, the GOP has done away with early and weekend voting; mandated that voters secure new IDs before they are allowed to vote; purged voter rolls in states like Florida, with most of those removed attached to the Democratic party; and Brazile said Republicans are intent on making it as difficult as possible for those seeking to exercise their right to vote, but she said regardless of the obstacles people face, they must not be deterred.
"This fall, we'll see barriers we have not seen since 1965," she told a standing-room-only audience of more than 2,000 participants. "Martin Luther King, Jr., gave us the ballot but we're going to have a hard time getting the ballot to people seeking to vote."
Moderator Marc Lamont Hill, Ph.D., echoed the sentiment of most of the panelists during opening comments.
"This is a 21st century form of racial discrimination," he intoned. "This is not anything to be objective about. This is a clear case of discrimination. Republicans don't want to win by genius, they want to win ... by the marginalization of poor, brown, black people. Obama galvanized a whole new generation of people. Now they [Republicans] have convinced us that for the sake of voter fraud, they have to restrict us."
"You have a greater chance of being struck by lightning in front of the house you won on Publishers Clearing House. We can lose an election, but we can never lose our vote."
Brazile was joined by the Rev. Al Sharpton, conservative columnist and commentator Crystal Wright, Reps. John Lewis [D-Ga.], Mel Watt [D-N.C.] and Marcia Fudge [D-Ohio] and Republican strategist and commentator Ron Christie.
Christie said he is aware of voter fraud and provided examples, but said he does not agree that the pursuit of those involved in these activities should come at the expense of people's ability to exercise their basic democratic right.
"The Indiana Supreme Court case paved the way for states to craft their own laws but I have a problem with Texas' law ... the Texas law is discriminating against low-income people."
Sharpton characterized GOP assertions that their desire is to root out voter fraud as a red herring.
"This is a solution looking for a problem, not the other way around," he said. "We're not against IDs ... we're against the new restrictive IDs. We say have the same IDs this year as when Reagan, Bush and Clinton ran."
Sharpton cited the case of an 85-year-old man who has to drive 27 miles to get an ID and pay $27 for the ID as well.
"That's a poll tax," he said. "This will potentially cost 5 million votes. In Watt's state, the president won by 14,000 votes. Shaving off 100,000 votes could turn the election. We need to fight to change the laws but do everything we can to vote this year. If they [Civil Rights activists] could stand up to Jim Clark, what excuse do we have to not get voter IDs?"
Wright scoffed at the assertions of Sharpton and most of the other panelists, saying that there is no racial discrimination in the efforts to combat voter fraud, adding that demands for new IDs have not adversely affected those seeking to vote. She buttressed her argument with studies which show that in Colorado, 500 non-citizens voted. And she suggested that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case involving the state of Indiana sanctioned the legislation GOP-controlled legislators are trying to pass.
"We have to look at the laws to find ways for people to prove who they are without others being disenfranchised," she said. "... On a very basic level, it's incumbent, regardless of the party, to know who they are voting for [on pocketbook issues] and where you live."
Sharpton and Wright butted heads verbally throughout the discussion with each accusing the other of misstating the facts.
"First of all, we can have different opinions but not different facts," he said addressing Wright following comments she made about the Indiana voter ID law that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld. "The Indiana case was not the same ID laws we're dealing with in Pennsylvania. We're talking about different states and different laws."
Pennsylvania has become ground zero in the GOP's voter registration efforts. A Pennsylvania judge upheld a law that requires voters to have a state-issued ID before they'll be allowed to vote. But residents have had great difficulty in securing these IDs and so far, fewer than 7,000 of the estimated 758,000 people on voter rolls have these photo IDs.
The number of people who lack the photo IDs needed to vote outnumber Obama's 2008 margin of victory in the state. That year, Obama carried Pennsylvania by 605,820 votes.
Laws in states such as South Carolina, Florida and Texas have been challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice under provisions of the Civil Rights Act because of a history of discriminatory election practices in those places.
Lewis, who is revered for his role in the Civil Rights movement, lamented the current situation, but also expressed frustration, saying he was "trying to be non-violent today."