Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin’s recent stumbles have revealed quite a story.
Thanks to the dogged reporting of the Arkansas Times, the public now knows that as many as 7,000 Arkansas voters were unlawfully purged from the voter rolls this summer.
To date, Martin has not expressed any concern about the cost he is putting on county governments to fix his errors. His office’s failure to fix the voting rolls and his refusal to provide to the public all of the records related to the purge are not, however, the most revealing stories of this ordeal.
Instead, Martin’s stumbles have revealed a broader story at the heart of the long struggle for voting rights.
To understand this broader story, we first have to step back in time to the 1874 Arkansas Constitution. The constitution places private property as the most important of all rights under our state Constitution. Not life, liberty or security, but property.
This emphasis on property, which was the source of economic power, was a product of the times. The constitution was a reaction to Reconstruction and the battle over who could vote, especially the right of ex-Confederates to vote. It placed political power away from a central authority that could seize property — a not unfamiliar scenario for some at the time.
In one of those now beautiful accidents of history, the constitution enshrined strong protection for voting rights and placed political power more directly with the people. Of course, voting and property rights did not apply to everyone equally at first. They were intended to benefit the economic elite and ex-Confederates of the time. But these protections were strong nonetheless.
Fast-forward some 90-odd years to another battle over voting rights. Bob Moses, an oft-unsung hero of the civil rights movement, said the key to the emerging movement was not changing national economic and social policy. Nor was it promoting just and peaceable race relations. The ultimate goal was universal suffrage; the now iconic call for “One Man, One Vote.”
Moses called for nothing short of a political revolution — words familiar to progressives and liberals of today. The essence of Moses’ revolution then was that bad public policy would not and could not change unless and until everybody voted.
Symbolic and marginal improvements were possible, but only those comfortably involved in the political and economic system benefited. Moses knew that even when de jure racism was defeated, all too often the benefits flowed disproportionately to those higher up the economic scale, regardless of race.
Moses connected voting rights to race and economics in a way that Mark Martin reveals still applies today: Voting rights are about political and economic power.
Martin’s purge of today is a violation of the strong voter protection language of the Arkansas Constitution. The same constitution that sanctions no higher right than property also strongly protects the right to vote of those on the margins of society.
In theory, Martin’s purge affected felons who had not yet regained the right to vote. What if Martin’s purge were to have occurred only in wealthy ZIP codes? Would Martin have fixed the errors already? Abstract thought experiments aside, the good news is that Moses’ actual insight is timeless: When everyone can and does vote, then everyone will benefit.
Today’s battle to fix Martin’s voter purge may be a rear-guard action compared to past battles. But the stakes are the same: power for all the people. Not symbolic spare change for a few, but power for everyone — especially the least, last and lost. Government of, by and for, all the people.
Chris Burks is general counsel for the Democratic Party of Arkansas.