It’s not that national party conventions are entirely irrelevant. Amidst all the pomp and circumstance are significant theatrical displays that reveal forged alliances, potential cabinet picks, and stymied aspirations. But because the party’s nominee is already a given before convening, and no longer decided by debating delegates at the time of the gathering, national party conventions have lost most of their technical and practical usefulness. Other norms, like lobbying on the physical lobby floor of the Capitol Building, have also become rather obsolete in our matured political system. We may have thought that contending for fair voting rights across class and racial lines was also among the remnants of politics past. But on the same day that Mitt Romney was soliciting Americans for their votes, a federal district court had to strike down a Texas law that would impose “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor” and minority voters. That was just the latest development in a nationwide battle over voting rights.
In 2011, the Texas legislature decided to require a government-issued photo ID from voters rather than only a voter registration certificate, or a form of identification ranging from a birth certificate to a utility bill or paycheck. Their basis for so doing was to prevent individuals from impersonating voters at the polls, “an occurrence more rare than getting struck by lightning” according to researchers at New York University’s School of Law. In March 2012, the US Department of Justice denied pre-clearance for the law under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a policy from the 1960s that allows the federal government jurisdiction over states that have a history of racial voting discrimination. The Attorney General concluded that the Texas law failed to show that it would not “have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race.” That is because acquiring a government-issued photo ID is most difficult (due to cost and physical mobility) for students, the poor, and minorities. Yet, Texas took it to federal district court, and on August 30th pre-clearance was again denied. Texas plans to appeal to the Supreme Court, but no decision will be made in time for the November elections.
The Supreme Court has already ruled in favor of voter ID laws in Arizona and Indiana, and the Justice Department has granted pre-clearance in Virginia. But each state’s law differs in its strictness and specifics; some, like Ohio, are strict but without requiring a photo ID. The underlying commonality between them all is that they are products of the 21st century. Since 2001, 46 state legislatures have introduced 1,000 bills dealing with voter IDs; 21 of them have passed major legislation since 2003. This year alone, there is legislation pending in 32 states, with proposals for new laws in 14 of them and for strengthening existing laws in 10. (More information here.) There is a direct correlation between the strictest laws and Republican-dominance of their respective state legislatures. And yes, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the voters most adversely affected by these laws – students, the poor, and minorities – lean heavily Democratic.
Where voter ID laws are not at stake, other efforts are being made by state Republican administrations to restrict voting. Recently in Ohio, Secretary of State Jon Husted sought to limit early voting in counties that voted Democratic in 2008. Early voting begins about a month before Election Day and allows for voting in the evenings and on weekends, ideal for working class voters who cannot afford to miss work to stand in line for several hours. Husted, claiming that counties couldn’t afford extended early voting hours, came out in favor of restricting early voting in the urban areas of Cleveland, Columbus, and Akron. Blacks, largely populating those urban areas, gave Barack Obama 95% of their votes in 2008; Ohio narrowly gave him a 52% victory and the state’s decisive Electoral College votes. So the correlation and discrimination were “overt” and the outcries loud. Eventually, Husted retreated a bit, announcing a uniform policy across all of Ohio’s counties that would see evening hours retained.
Although the Texas and Ohio decisions ultimately retained protections for those voters most vulnerable to disenfranchisement for now, the movement towards restricting voting remains in full force across the country. No wonder Nadine, a black woman and member of the Service Employees International Union, told me at a rally in downtown Cleveland yesterday that she was worried about her right to vote. Those words are unexpected in 2012. But so long as national party conventions have also outlived their expiration dates, I hope they are words that are being heard on the political stage.
Rana B. Khoury is a writer and researcher whose interests and education span the Middle East and the Midwest. She received her BA in Political Science from American University and her MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University. She has spent one-year stints living and working in Syria and Singapore. She is currently focusing on the impact of the economic downturn on Ohioans. She blogs at http://ranakhoury.com