Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his antecedent of a century earlier, Rev. Theodore Parker, were optimistic that the “arc of the moral universe,” while awfully long, bent toward justice. But it turns out they misjudged what a desperate political party would do when the long march for human rights threatened its hegemony.
Actually, Parker said “my eye reaches but little ways” across the moral universe but his conscience told him that equal justice for all Americans, including the most fundamental right of all — voting — would some day prevail. After the old Unitarian abolitionist uttered his famous adage in 1853, for the next hundred years it was the Democratic Party, or at least its Southern appendage, that sought to thwart justice for Black people by barring or discouraging them from voting. Meanwhile, the Whigs, who gave birth in Parker’s day to the Republican Party, were only trying to impair the cultural and political influence of immigrants with undesirable languages and habits.
Neither man imagined that in the 21st century it would be the party of Abraham Lincoln that decided democracy had gone way too far when only once in 30 years a Republican candidate for president (George W. Bush in 2004) got more votes than the Democrat. Republicans then set out to suppress voting by the sort of people who favored Democrats. It actually had begun in 2000 when Republican electioneers in Florida had to cheat a lot of people, mainly Blacks and seniors, out of their votes to engineer a presidency for Bush, who lost the election to Al Gore by 550,000 votes but got to be president anyway owing to the screwy Electoral College. Five times in American history, the winners of the national vote — all of them Democrats — lost the presidency to less popular men, including Bush in 2000 and Donald J. Trump in 2016, because the Electoral College assigned extra votes to a score of unpopulated states like Wyoming and Alaska.
If it were not for the Electoral College’s irrational or long-outmoded mechanics for calculating state results, we would have had a real democratic election for the presidency in 2020. There would have been no screaming about fraud, there would have been no armed effort to overthrow the government of the United States on Jan. 6 and no effort now to curtail voting in solidly red Arkansas and nearly all Republican-controlled states.
Although elections in Arkansas are thoroughly controlled by the Republican Party and Republicans from Donald Trump to county tax assessors win handily in nearly every statewide, regional and local contest, the state legislature, in near panic, is enacting bill after bill to erect hurdles to voting, all with the defense that they are needed to deter voter fraud, of which there has been no evidence in modern times, at least since the abolition of the poll tax in 1964.
Across the country, 33 states with Republican legislatures are passing laws to restrict access to the ballot with tougher voter-identification requirements, limited absentee and mail voting, more cumbersome registration procedures and timetables, or more aggressive purging of voter rolls. All of it is in response to Trump’s fraudulent claims of massive fraud that he said accounted for his lopsided defeat — by 7 million votes — nationally and his narrower losses in six swing states that decisively flipped the Electoral College.
The ballot-fraud campaigns have two focuses: Black, Hispanic and Asian voters who traditionally are more easily discouraged from voting but who turned out in big numbers in 2020, and mail and early voting, which were expanded in most states last year owing to fear of the coronavirus at crowded polls. Mail and early voting favored Democrats who, unlike Trump voters, were not going to line up at crowded polling places during a pandemic. Trump protested all the expanded mail voting — except in states like Utah that voted heavily for him by mail — and enlisted his postal administrator to try to sabotage mail voting, particularly in Pennsylvania and Michigan.
In Arkansas and in swing states like Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan and in Deep South states, so-called “election reform” is aimed at suppressing Black voting through tougher registration, voter ID specifications, sharply truncated early voting and centralized election administration under Republican officials. Arkansas already has a lower voter turnout than most states, and we should be shooting for higher, not lower, voter participation, which is a good measure of functioning democracies.
We should remember what this is all about: the most fundamental of human rights in the great American democratic experiment, voting. In a government of the people, by the people, for the people, the right of everyone to vote is central to the whole equation. America has spent two centuries of war and executive, judicial and legislative evolution to perfect those rights.
A little local history of vote suppression might be in order. When Arkansas became a state, all you needed to vote in Arkansas was to be a white man, a citizen and an Arkansas resident for six months. The first known lynching in Arkansas occurred in the first election in 1836, when a Black man was lynched for trying to vote. The great battles during Reconstruction and its aftermath were over voting. Male Republicans and former slaves could vote during Reconstruction but Confederates and their sympathizers — all Democrats — could not, until Reconstruction ended in 1877 and citizenship was restored to the seditionists. Briefly, Arkansas paupers of any race were barred from voting but citizens from other countries could vote. The Ku Klux Klan and whitecappers waged fierce war to discourage Blacks from voting. Republicans and Democrats alike committed fraud on a massive scale, tossing whole boxes of ballots in the river to destroy evidence. A Republican candidate for Congress, a brother of the governor, was murdered when he went to Conway County to find out what happened to all his votes there.
Democrats in the legislature settled matters for good in the 1890s with a spate of laws that erected the Jim Crow society. It required men wishing to vote to pay a poll tax every year in a state where the average annual wage was only $548. A poll tax receipt had to be shown to vote. Landowners threatened sharecroppers and farm laborers to keep them from voting, but eventually landowners and other leaders simply bought poll taxes for Blacks and cast their votes for them. But the poll-tax system made little difference because the Democratic Party declared its primaries, where all issues were settled, to be for white voters only. The courts said that was fine. In 1917, Arkansas allowed white women to vote in primaries, although Republicans rarely held them, and after Arkansas ratified the 19th amendment in 1919, women were given suffrage in all elections.
During the Jim Crow era, Arkansas did not follow the regimen of Deep South states that erected barriers, such as literacy tests, to keep Blacks from the polls altogether. All-white primaries and the poll tax were sufficient to render the Black vote virtually meaningless, so why bother making Black voters who came to the polls recite the Preamble to the Constitution? After World War II and the election of Gov. Sid McMath, Arkansas invited Blacks into the Democratic primaries.
That left the poll tax. In 1964, Democratic reformers led by state Rep. Hardy W. Croxton of Rogers, Dr. Dave Luck of Arkadelphia and Cal and Brownie Ledbetter of Little Rock fashioned a constitutional amendment that abolished the poll tax and established a system that allowed people to register one time to vote for the rest of their lives. The legislature had refused to refer the amendment to the ballot because it specified that the legislature could never impose any other requirement to vote beyond the registration. Behind the scenes was Republican Winthrop Rockefeller, who mainly bankrolled the ratification campaign and who believed that racial repression was Arkansas’s and the South’s most grievous problem. Even Gov. Orval E. Faubus shrugged that the voter-registration law would be all right, and it was ratified.
So it was that in 1965, when the Democratic Congress, with the votes of a number of northern Republicans but not a single Arkansan, enacted the Voting Rights Act, Arkansas was not among the states subjected to an automatic federal review of any voting changes, owing to its recent record of permissive Black voting. Forty-five years later, Arkansas was still forced by the federal courts to reapportion state legislative seats because racial gerrymandering diluted the voting strength of Blacks. It produced a few more minority legislators.
The passage of the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights laws in the 1960s by a Democratic president and Congress started the most seismic change in two centuries of American politics. White conservatives in the South and Midwest left the old Democratic Party and settled, uncomfortably at first, into the Republican Party — a shift that became complete with racial and nationalist taunts in 2010 and beyond of a new Republican showman, Donald Trump.
George Bush’s narrow election in 2000, thanks to voter suppression in Florida, sent a message to the party. Even marginal vote suppression can make a critical difference in a big election like the presidential race, and also in local elections here and there. So after Republicans gained majorities in state legislatures — after 2010 in Arkansas — they began to tinker with voting procedures, notably by requiring voters to present an official photo identification at the polls to prove that they were the person whose registration they were using, although not a single instance of such fraud was cited. It was a real problem for lots of people — the elderly, the disabled and Black women, who most often did not have cars and had no official ID. Alternate procedures — provisional ballots — would be allowed but the process was confusing, embarrassing and too daunting for many. It was easier to just stay home.
The Arkansas legislature in 2013 passed such a law and then overrode the veto of Gov. Mike Beebe. The bill clearly violated Arkansas’s voter-registration law by enacting a new requirement for voting, and the Arkansas Supreme Court said so. (Full disclosure: A group I founded helped initiate the suit.) No problem. The legislature came back the next year and sent a constitutional amendment to the voters, who perfunctorily ratified the Republican amendment requiring official ID to vote.
Now, at the urging of Donald Trump and the Party of Lincoln and Rockefeller that Trump now owns, the legislatures of Arkansas and at least 32 other states are back at the wheel, grinding out more barriers to voting in the 2022 and 2024 elections. It is depressing but mainly because a once-idealistic party seeks to undermine the very foundation of democracy.
Here is the good news: The suppression they are engineering will have only a negligible effect because the targeted and once-cowed citizens are newly invigorated. Also, when we all go to the polls again, with a little grace, voters will not face the perils of a raging virus.