Fueled by funding from racist, right-wing capitalists, a campaign to restrict and deny voting rights to African-American, Latino/a, and other poor and oppressed communities is raging across the U.S. Just how far will it go?
Just three weeks before the elections, billboards saying, “Voter Fraud is a Felony — Up to 3-1/2 years & $10,000 fine,” started popping up in major cities in Wisconsin and Ohio. The signs — all posted in neighborhoods with high African-American populations — are a direct attempt to intimidate voters by trying to convince people that voting is a risky activity.
The issue of the right to vote for African Americans dates back to the period following the U.S. Civil War known as the Reconstruction Era. From 1866 until 1876, formerly enslaved people in the South, with armed protection by Northern federal troops, fought for equality on the same par as whites, especially in the areas of political representation, education and land. This profoundly progressive period was violently cut short with the withdrawal of the troops that gave rise to the pro-Confederate Ku Klux Klan, semi-slavery conditions and eventually, entrenched segregation.
Many in these communities remember when defiance of Jim Crow laws and other restrictions on Black voters in the South resulted in fines, jail time, beatings or even death. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, won through the Civil Rights movement, has been severely weakened over the decades, like so many other progressive concessions.
With stop-and-frisk policies in place in many urban areas, just walking-while-Black can result in police harassment, arrests or worse. In all but two states, more than 4.4 million formerly incarcerated people, labeled as felons, are permanently disenfranchised.
Despite a state court ruling limiting implementation of Pennsylvania’s repressive Voter ID law, the state continues to churn out information through radio and TV ads, bus posters and mailings to thousands of seniors in a prescription drug program that ID is required to vote. In a predominantly Latino/a north Philadelphia neighborhood, a billboard picturing a woman holding a driver’s license still says, “Si Quieres Votar Muéstrala” (If you want to vote, show it.).
Further adding to the confusion, the Philadelphia power company PECO sent 840,000 customers an announcement in their October bills saying people must have a valid photo ID to vote.
The hands of U.S. capitalists can be found all over these campaigns. All of the billboard ads in the Midwest were posted by the media monopoly Clear Channel, which claims that an anonymous “family foundation” paid for the nearly 150 threatening voter fraud ads.
The billboards come on top of a campaign promoted by the right-wing corporate funded American Legislative Exchange Council to pass laws in over 34 states restricting voting by requiring photo identification or other proof of citizenship. Little effort has been made to hide the racism that motivates this campaign.
Among the primary partners in ALEC are David and Charles Koch, also the major force behind recent efforts to resegregate public schools in North Carolina. Their father, Fred Koch, founder of Koch Industries, one of the largest private corporations in the U.S., earned notoriety in the 1950s as a founding member of the neo-Nazi John Birch Society, a primary opponent of desegregation.
Today’s attempt to disenfranchise millions of voters is motivated in large part by racists like the Koch brothers who seem determined to ensure that the first Black president of the U.S. will not see a second term. But it goes deeper than that.
The capitalist ruling class in the U.S. has every intention of implementing the type of severe austerity measures already imposed on workers in many European countries, regardless of who wins the 2012 presidential election. In oppressed communities, where police are already an occupying force, discouraging people from exercising their right to vote is yet another way to suppress opposition.
What must never be forgotten is that the basic “right to vote” was not given to anyone by the capitalist class. It was won through decades of struggle. Therefore, defense of the right to vote should not be viewed as an act of charity. It is an act of anti-racist solidarity with the most oppressed by left and other progressive forces that helps build class unity. Our sisters and brothers fighting against austerity measures around the world are showing us that the outcome of this fight will also be determined in the streets, not the voting booths.