President Barack Obama walks to the podium to speaks to reporters at the White House in 2011. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
The New York Times reported last week that President Obama fantasizes with aides about “going Bulworth.” For those who don’t remember, Bulworth is a brilliant 1998 film by Warren Beatty, depicting a corrupted and suicidal liberal senator from California who is facing a primary challenge while dealing with financial ruin. Unable to sleep or eat, Bulworth suddenly busts out before an African American congregation in a black church in South Central Los Angeles and begins rapping the unspeakable truths about our politics. The Times report has led commentators to speculate on what the president might say if he went “Bulworth.” What’s revealing, however, is how much could be taken directly from the movie itself.
As Republicans and the press hyperventilate about inflated scandals, the president could simply “go Bulworth” by borrowing directly from the movie to talk about what the actual scandals are:
We got babies in South Central dying as young as they do in Peru.
We got public schools that’re nightmares
We got a Congress that ain’t got a clue
The real crises are mass unemployment and falling wages. Mindless cuts in government spending are costing jobs, slowing any recovery. We have an economy that rewards only the few. Corporations are pocketing record amounts of the economy in profits, while wages hit new lows. The richest 1 percent captured more than 100 percent of the income growth of the society in the two years coming out of the recession. Yet Republicans continue to demand more cuts in programs for the vulnerable and reject even closing tax havens for the wealthy.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
President Obama speaks at Morehouse College commencement in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
First lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama were the respective featured commencement speakers this year at Bowie State University and Morehouse College—two historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) founded nearly 150 years ago. While the Obamas could have taken the opportunity to inspire black graduates entering an uncertain future, both chose, instead, to pepper their remarks with problematic and unobliging stereotypes about black youth. While doing so, both also conveniently neglected to call attention to the policy changes that President Obama could have enacted to help alleviate the insurmountable odds that young people of color—and blacks in particular—face in the United States.
When the first lady addressed Bowie graduates last Friday, she summoned the likes of Dr. King, Thurgood Marshall and Fredrick Douglass to help weave a brief history of the school—founded in Maryland just as the Civil War was coming to an end. And yet, as she talked about a long tradition of black students’ hunger for education, she added that about 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and more than fifty years after Brown v. Board, “too many of young people just can’t be bothered” to pursue an education. Michelle Obama said that rather than walk miles to school everyday, black students sit “on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV.” And the stereotypes didn’t stop there. “Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader,” proclaimed the first lady, “they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”
Michelle Obama’s banal descriptions come at a time when many of us are waiting with bated breath for the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action, which could reverse the positive—and still developing—results of Brown v. Board. Although the first lady pointed out that one in three black students drops out of high school, and that only one in five between the ages of 25 and 29 have a college degree, her remarks appear to put the onus not on a system designed to ensure black failure but on lazy individuals.
Forget that Chicago Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff under Obama, Rahm Emanuel, is backing the closing more than fifty schools, which will disproportionately affect black students—as violence rages on and is literally killing black and Latino youth. Forget the ways in which Obama has made “painful cuts” to Pell Grants—benefits available to students whose families cannot otherwise afford to pay for college (read: black, brown and Native families who have fared worse under Obama, and can never seem to catch up to the wealth that white families have secured after centuries of inequities). Michelle Obama’s remarks reserve blame not for an entire structure that betrays black students at multiple levels, but on black students themselves whom she condemns for wasting time in front of television sets. The first lady’s remarks about black youth fantasizing about “being a baller or a rapper” might cut extraordinarily deep for those youth who essentially learn literary criticism by close readings of rap lyrics. Those youth are grasping rhyme, metaphor and syntax before the concepts are even introduced in their public school. And there is innately nothing wrong with—and, in fact, much to be celebrated about—the art of hip-hop, or learning to survive as a so-called baller when other avenues have systemically been closed to you.
Perhaps more problematic were the president’s remarks to Morehouse graduates on Sunday—after all, perhaps the first lady can and should be spared the most egregious consequences of this administration’s decisions on communities of color. It will be Barack Obama, and not his better half, who will inherit the legacy of continued criminalization schemes that secure the inordinate number of blacks in jails and prisons, along with increased deportation schemes that secure a record number of immigrant removals. The outrageous bounty placed on Assata Shakur, the flawed use and defense of drone strikes that result in extrajudicial killings—these are some of the ways in which this president will inevitably be remembered.
During his address, the president, too, evoked Dr. King, Thurgood Marshall and Fredrick Douglass, and included personal observations such as the times when he used to write off his “own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.” But that conviction was swayed after learning that “there’s no longer any room for excuses.” While Barack acknowledged the legacies of slavery and segregation, and the continued practices of racism and discrimination, he stressed the need to overcome these barriers because of an increasingly competitive global market in which “nobody is going to give [black graduates] anything that [they] have not earned.” He could have added that even earned rewards can quickly evaporate once race mediates the situation. Like his partner, the president stressed individual responsibility—dangerous and impractical guidance at a time when an undying system of white supremacy continues to dictate not only access to wealth and education, but also continues to determine matters of life and death.
Graduation is often a time for inspiration, not attacks—although that may have been lost on the first couple. Still, neither Michelle Obama nor Barack Obama could possibly fail to grasp that their words echo beyond commencement services and to audiences far and wide. In that respect, the speeches they’ve shared were written for all of us, and perhaps for black youth in especially, who are at once being bombarded with insulting stereotypes, and being blamed for a reality they haven’t constructed or can easily benefit from. As the president is being rocked by a right-wing-manufactured scandal, he might consider searching for support from the imaginative movements that helped bring him to power—movements that recognize that it’s not black people who are failing to succeed, but that a long-entrenched power structure fails to fully recognize the value of its entire people.
The Obama adminstration could take executive action to ensure better jobs for workers paid by government contracts and subsidies. Read Josh Eidelson’s report on today’s strike action.
A woman carries her child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, OK. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
In what is now officially one of the worst tornado disasters in US history, dozens of people have been reported dead in Oklahoma—many of them children—with the toll expected to rise as the search for survivors in the rubble continues. Television showed shocking destruction spread over a large area, with block upon block of homes and businesses, many in and around the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, completely demolished.
As is always the case, it’s the poor who are bearing the brunt of the catastrophe: because sub-standard housing is much more vulnerable to natural disaster, because support networks are likely to be far more impoverished and because whatever small cushions people possess are quickly wiped out in the face of disaster on this scale.
So how to help?
Here are some Oklahoma groups on the ground doing relief on behalf of the state’s most impoverished residents. They desperately needed our help before this storm was even glimpsed, but now more than ever, support is critically needed. I'll keep updating this list so use the comments field below for suggestions and check back later.
The Oklahoma Regional Food Bank was established in 1980, and has grown into the largest non-faith-based hunger-relief organization in the state of Oklahoma. It already had its hands full trying to feed the estimated 675,000 Oklahomans not getting enough to eat; now it has established special outposts near Oklahoma City to provide immediate food to those rendered homeless by the tornado.
Occupy Norman is acting as a clearinghouse for information about indie relief efforts and coordinating housing and medical supplies for those urgently in need.
Feeding America, whose mission is to “feed America’s hungry through a nationwide network of member food banks,” says it will deliver trucks of food, water and supplies to communities in Oklahoma, and will also “set up additional emergency food and supply distribution sites as they are needed.”
Team Rubicon’s Operation: Starting Gun is mobilizing volunteers to go directly to the communities to help assess damages and expedite home repair. Your support will help get these volunteers where they need to be as quickly as possible.
Set up through the non-profit, grassroots-supporting Global Giving, the Oklahoma Tornado Relief Fund is raising dollars for both immediate needs, as well as long-term rebuilding goals.
The Red Cross has set up shelters in various, affected communities. Donate to the Red Cross Disaster Relief fund; the organization also suggests giving blood at your local hospital or blood bank. If you’re searching for a missing relative, check the Red Cross Safe & Well site.
Prospects for a peaceful settlement of the civil war in Syria are dim, despite the peace conference expected to take place next month in Geneva, jointly sponsored by the United States and Russia. It’s unclear, yet, whether either side—the Syrian government or the rebels—will participate, though both are under great pressure from their respective patrons. If the conference fails, President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and the Russian leaders, Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, will have egg on their faces. Worse, of course, the killing will continue.
This week, Kerry will meet with the troublesome and fractious opposition movement in Jordan. His job there will be to persuade the rebels not to boycott the conference. That task could, conceivably, have the happy effect of splitting the opposition into moderate and radical factions—but just as well it could result in the opposition as a whole deciding not to talk to the government of President Assad. However, if the Syrian government agrees to take part, under pressure from Moscow, and the rebels don’t, it will be very, very difficult for the United States to continue supporting the rebels, at least in their present form.
As The New York Times says, in an editorial today:
[Kerry] will need to do a better job of clarifying the American vision, and organizing the allies, than Washington has done so far. The opposition forces are scheduled to meet in Istanbul on Thursday, followed by an Arab League meeting in Cairo. For the opposition to boycott the conference would hand a significant propaganda victory to Mr. Assad.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield, it appears that the Syrian government is making significant progress, bolstered by arms from Russia and Iran and taking advantage, perhaps, of disarray among the opposition. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the battle for Qusayr, a small city with strategic importance between the Lebanese border and Homs, Syria, could be a “turning point” in the war, tipping the balance in Assad’s favor. It says:
The bloody battle over the city of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, has the potential to transform Syria’s conflict, say fighters, diplomats and analysts. A government victory there could give the regime of President Bashar al-Assad a corridor of territory connecting Damascus to Syria’s pro-Assad coastline and to Lebanese territory controlled by Iran-backed Hezbollah. This would split rebel forces into fragmented strongholds.
The article quotes a Western diplomat thus:
“The entire paradigm has shifted” in Syria’s conflict, a Western diplomat said, describing the government’s push into Qusayr as the latest in a string of “confident, defiant and strategic moves.”
That’s a far cry from the expectation, two years ago, that the Syrian version of the Arab Spring movement that topped rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen would make short work of Assad.
The Los Angeles Times, in a parallel report titled “Syrian military shows unexpected resilience,” says that rebels elsewhere in Syria, outside Qusayr, are worried that the government will move against their positions next.It’s worth quoting the piece at length:
The military onslaught this week against the strategic Syrian town of Qusair has dramatized a surprising combat resilience that has already put rebel forces on the defensive on other key fronts, including near the capital, Damascus.
The military’s still-robust fighting ability—apparently bolstered in Qusair by the presence of combatants from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group—has confounded predictions from experts and foreign capitals that the Syrian government’s days were numbered.
Some are recalibrating their forecasts of the regime’s certain demise, even as Russia and the United States try to organize an international conference meant to jump-start peace talks and create a transitional government in Syria.
In recent weeks, forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have scored significant victories in the south and north.
In the media, much is being made of the fact that Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia backed by Syria and Iran, is taking part in the fighting. While the reports are mostly accurate, the main Syrian fighting force is the state’s own armed forces, who are being supplied readily by Iran and, especially, Russia. Russia’s support, which is routinely demonized in the Western media, can be a good thing, because it gives Russia leverage over Assad in the peace conference. But the success of that conference will depend on whether or not the United States is willing to exercise similar leverage over the rebels, more and more of whom are jihadist-influenced Sunni radicals and Al Qaeda types.
Attorney General Eric Holder. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Democrats and Republicans working together in Washington to address abuses of basic liberties? Bipartisan responses to the challenges that arise in the gray area where balances are struck between constitutional guarantees and national security demands? Impossible. Can’t happen. There is no way in these days of fury and scandal-mongering.
Actually, there is a way.
A genuine left-right coalition has developed over the past several days in response to the revelation that the Department of Justice seized Associated Press telephone records in its recent investigation of a CIA leak. And that coalition is likely to strengthen in light of the news that the DOJ investigated the reporting activities of Fox News’s chief Washington correspondent as a potential crime—“solicitation” of leaks. The latter development, in many senses more troubling than the former, calls into question whether basic protections for both reporters and whistleblowers are crumbling after more than a decade of Patriot Act abuses, Bush and Obama administration excesses and the politicization of debates about what were once accepted standards for protecting the public’s right to know and the privacy rights that underpin it.
In moments so rigorously partisan as these, many members of Congress will retreat to their corners, mounting attacks or making excuses. But there are some serious legislators, libertarian-leaning Republicans and progressive Democrats, who understand the urgency of the moment.
They get that the revelations about DOJ overreach reveal a threat not just to freedom of the press but to the most necessary of press functions: the work of revealing for citizens the details of what their government is doing in their name but without their informed consent. None of these members are foolish or casual in their approach; they understand that it is necessary for the government to protect against the leaking of information that could endanger people. But they also understand that it is possible to provide that protection within a constitutional context.
Perhaps most importantly, they get that the best way to protect the First Amendment guarantee of a free press is to protect the Fourth Amendment guarantee of privacy. Journalists do not need—and should not seek—an array of special protections to do their jobs. But journalists and their sources do need to know that information can be shared without the threat of unwarranted—and self-serving—government surveillance of necessary conversations.
It is with this in mind that four very different members of Congress (Michigan Republican Justin Amash, South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney, California Democrat Zoe Lofgren and Colorado Democrat Jared Polis) have proposed a precise and appropriate response to the overreach by the Department of Justice. While the White House and key members of the Senate are backing a Shield Law, which protects journalists from being required to reveal sources, the House members are going deeper—to protect not just journalists but all citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” They seek a Telephone Records Protection Act, which requires court approval when the government demands telephone records from service providers.
“The Justice Department’s seizure of the AP’s phone records—likely without the sign-off of a single judge—raises serious First and Fourth Amendment concerns,” says Amash, who has emerged as a hero to libertarian-leaning conservatives. “Regardless of whether DOJ violates the legitimate privacy expectations of reporters or ordinary Americans, we deserve to know that the federal government can’t seize our records without judicial review.”
Polis, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says, “Americans of all political stripes were shocked to find out that the Department of Justice had been accessing telephone records of reporters at the Associated Press. The Department of Justice claims that they operated within the confines of the law, which makes it abundantly clear that we need to provide a higher level of protection against government intrusion into an individual’s private records.”
This is an essential equation for all Americans who value the right to privacy outlined in the Fourth Amendment. But it is especially essential when it comes to constructing a press system that serves the intention expressed by the founders: to inform citizens so that they can, with their votes, steer the affairs of state.
This is what Thomas Jefferson recognized more than 227 years ago when he wrote to John Jay, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”
In the same letter, Jefferson wrote: “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”
Associated Press President Gary Pruitt updated the Jeffersonian premise when he explained that the Justice Department’s actions were not just “unconstitutional” but destructive to the public’s right to know, insofar as such monitoring of media makes sources less willing to talk to journalists and reduces the likelihood that citizens will learn what their government is up to.
“If they restrict that apparatus [of newsgathering about controversial government actions] the people of the United States will only know what the government wants them to know and that’s not what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment,” explained the head of the country’s largest news service.
Pruitt’s right. No matter what action is taken, or not taken, journalists will continue to clog the corridors of the Capitol and crowd into White House press briefings. The question is whether those journalists will be present to challenge the status quo or as mere stenographers to power.
That’s a distinction that members of Congress who take seriously their oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States understand. Indeed, it is the distinction that James Madison, the essential player in the drafting of the core document and of the Bill of Rights, was getting at when he said, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Justin Amash and Jared Polis are not going to agree on most issues. Neither are Mick Mulvaney and Zoe Lofgren.
But they can agree on the basic outlines of the American experiment and how it must operate.
This is as the founders of that experiment intended: a free press providing a free people with the information they need to be their own governors.
John Nichols is the author (with Robert w. McChesney) of the upcoming book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America. Hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as “a fervent call to action for reformers,” it details how the collapse of journalism and the rise of big-money politics threatens to turn our democracy into a dollarocracy.
Why trade happiness for anti-government malcontent? Read Tom Tomorrow’s scoop.
Workers and supporters mobilize inside Union Station, DC. (Credit: Fight for Philly)
An update appears below.
Starting at 7:30 this morning, hundreds of non-union workers with taxpayer-supported jobs plan to go on strike in the nation’s capitol. Organizers expect the one-day walkout to include workers employed at Smithsonian museums, the Old Post Office and Ronald Reagan buildings and Union Station, where tourists, lobbyists and members of Congress arrive by Amtrak train to Washington, DC. The strikers are part of a recently-unveiled organization, Good Jobs Nation, backed by labor and community groups. They’re demanding that President Obama take action to improve wages and working conditions for workers employed under federal contracts.
“The truth is, I’m ready. I’m not scared,” janitor Vilma Martinez told The Nation in Spanish last night. “Fear fades away, especially in the face of the unfair treatment we get here.” Martinez, who’s worked at Union Station for the past nineteen years, said that the federal contractor ICC Cleaning pays her $8.75 an hour. She said she’s supposed to get regular check-ups for a serious heart condition, but only sees a doctor when she goes back to El Salvador, because she’s uninsured.
Today’s strike follows the release last week of a report from the progressive think tank Demos estimating that at least 1,992,000 workers receive $12 per hour or less while doing jobs backed by public funds. “Through federal contracts and other funding,” authors Amy Traub and Robert Hiltonsmith wrote, “our tax dollars are fueling the low-wage economy and exacerbating inequality.”
Traub and Hiltonsmith’s tally includes jobs funded or supported through direct federal contracts (560,000 jobs), Medicare or federal Medicaid spending (1,184,000 jobs), Small Business Administration loans, federal Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) spending, federal infrastructure funds or Public Buildings Service property leases. “This is more than the number of low-wage workers at Walmart and McDonalds combined,” write Traub and Hiltonsmith. At the other end of the pay scale, they note, the executives who employ these workers can legally be reimbursed by taxpayers for total compensation of up to $763,029 per year.
The Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request for comment on the study late Monday afternoon.
Good Jobs Nation is backed by organizations including the community organizing group OUR DC, the clergy group Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference and the labor federation Change to Win. As The Nation has reported, Change to Win affiliates have also provided support for recent strikes by non-union workers worked employed in Walmart stores, in sub-contracted Walmart warehouses, on sub-contracted cleaning crews in Twin Cities Target stores and in fast food restaurants in five cities.
Strikers will converge for rallies at Union Station at 12:30 and 4:30 this afternoon. Members of Congress, including House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairs Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva, are expected to host an “ad hoc hearing” at 3 pm regarding taxpayer-backed low-wage employment.
Demos notes that the executive branch has the authority, without going through Congress, to impose new rules for federal contracting. Two decades before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, President Franklin Roosevelt banned racial or religious discrimination by federal contractors. Early in his term, President Obama issued an executive order banning contractors from billing the government for “the costs of any activities undertaken to persuade employees” whether or not to exercise “the right to organize and bargain collectively.”
But, as I reported in an investigation for Salon last year, Obama’s order didn’t prevent the government contractor Serco from using government-rented office space, and government-provided equipment, for mandatory anti-union meetings. (A spokesperson for US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency using Serco’s services in that case, told me that the government “will not be billed” for the time workers spent in the meetings, but that Serco was “permitted to use government facilities to communicate with its employees without obtaining government permission.”)
In September 2010, the Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding that the government had paid $6 billion in fiscal year 2009 federal contracts to contractors who had been cited for violations of federal labor laws. Seven months earlier, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration was planning to issue a “High Road Procurement Policy” that could “disqualify more companies with labor, environmental or other violations and give an edge to companies that offer better levels of pay, health coverage, pensions and other benefits” in securing federal contracts. But such a move never came to pass; the following year, Obama OMB appointee Heather Higginbottom said in her confirmation hearing that it was not currently under consideration (an administration official told Government Executive afterwards that OMB was “considering the views of Congress, the private sector, and others with respect to possible initiatives and no decision has been made”). Labor and LGBT activists have also called for the administration to use executive action to bar federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers; Obama so far has not done so.
Martinez told The Nation that if she could talk to the president, “I would ask him to help us get a decent salary, and respect on the job, and health insurance, so we don’t have to go back to our countries to get treated.” “With the help of God, and the help of my co-workers,” she said, “I’m hopeful that at the end of the day we’ll be triumphant.”
Update (1:15 PM Tuesday): According to the Good Jobs Nation campaign, hundreds of workers are now on strike, forcing the shutdown of "about half" of the Reagan's building's food court outlets, and of the McDonald's located at the Air and Space Museum. In an e-mailed statement, one of that store's employees, Ana Salvador, said, "The company I work for makes big profits thanks to taxpayers. It's not right that I work hard every day to serve the public, and I have to choose between taking the Metro to work and paying the electric bill."
The federal Office of Management and Budget did not immediately respond to a Tuesday morning request for comment on the strikes.
Last week, teachers voted to keep the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators at the helm of the Chicago Teachers Union. Read Micah Uetricht’s report.
Can workers from traditionally non-union positions like the fast-food industry be the future of the labor movement? The alt-labor movement, as described by The Nation’s Josh Eidelson, consists of workers who have never collectively tried to negotiate for better wages. Eidelson speaks with NPR’s Jennifer Ludden on Talk of the Nation about where the labor movement goes from here.
— Max Rivlin-Nadler
Read more about the future of labor organizing in the service industry.
Activists are charging the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority with violating the civil rights of a half-million bus riders, 75 percent of them black or Latino, by cutting 1 million hours of bus service and raising monthly bus passes to $72 while giving away public funds to rail developers and contractors. Consequently, community groups are calling on President Obama to employ Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which gives the executive branch of the US government the power to cut off federal funds from any agency that employs federal funding in a racist or discriminatory manner.
Join The Nation in partnership with the Labor/Community Strategy Center’s Fight for the Soul of the Cities campaign and urge the Obama administration and Congress to enforce the Civil Rights Act.
In his recent Nation essay, Eric Mann details how progressive activists can learn important lessons from a successful grassroots campaign against transit racism.
The Bus Riders Union and its allies gathered at LA City Hall on July 25, 2012 to launch their national campaign asking President Obama to restore, enforce and expand their civil rights.
Voters stand in line during the fourth day of early voting in North Miami, Tuesday, October 30, 2012, as Floridians cast their ballot seven days before Election Day. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Throughout American history, restrictions on voter registration were a major tool of disenfranchisement. Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, only a quarter of African-Americans in the South were registered to vote. Four years after the VRA outlawed literacy tests and other voter suppression devices, the number of black Southeners registered to vote had more than doubled.
Despite the transformative impact of the VRA, one of the most consequential laws in American history, obstacles to voter registration persisted. There were few locations at which to register, limited hours, recalcitrant county registrars, frequent voter purges and complex re-registration schemes. “Overall registration rates were lower in 1992 than in 1972,” notes a new report from Demos.
Voting rights reformers, led by CUNY professor Frances Fox Piven, launched a campaign in the 1980s to make voter registration easier as a way to fulfill the long-overdue promise of the VRA. On May 20, 1993, President Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act, which made it possible to register to vote at the DMV and other public agencies, such as public assistance and disability centers, allowed prospective voters to mail in voter registration forms and made it simpler for third-party groups to conduct voter registration drives. In its first year on the books, in 1995, over 30 million people registered to vote or updated their voter registration through the NVRA. “Since the implementation of the NVRA, an estimated 141 million Americans have applied to get on the voter rolls through registration services the NVRA requires at DMVs, disability offices, and public agencies,” reports Project Vote. “In addition, countless more have been protected from purging due to the protections the NVRA provides.”
Much progress has been made as we mark the 20th anniversary of the NVRA, but there’s still a long way to go. A quarter of eligible US citizens are not registered to vote. As Attorney General Eric Holder has noted, 80 percent of the 75 million eligible Americans who didn’t vote in 2008 were not registered to vote. States in recent years have escalated attacks on voter registration.
Following the 2010 election, Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee passed laws requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote (according to a 2006 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 7 percent of eligible voters “do not have ready access to the documents needed to prove citizenship”), Florida and Texas made it virtually impossible for third-party groups like the League of Women Voters to conduct voter registration drives and states like Florida and Colorado attempted ill-considered and inaccurate eleventh-hour voter purges. The Supreme Court will soon rule whether Arizona’s 2004 proof of citizenship law violates the NVRA. And the Court will also decide next month whether the centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional.
An antiquated voter registration system is a major cause of the country’s electoral dysfunction. Modernizing voter registration, as the Brennan Center for Justice has proposed, would add 50 million eligible Americans to the voter rolls by automatically registering consenting adults to vote at government agencies, adopting Election Day voter registration, and allowing citizens to register to vote and update their addresses online. These ideas have been incorporated into the Congressional Voter Empowerment Act and have recently been adopted by states like Colorado that are leading the way in terms of making it easier to vote.
“I think there is a guideline for election reform which we should take very seriously, and that is it has to be as simple as possible,” says Piven. “The procedures have to be as simple as possible so that people can understand them and can defend their own rights and so advocates can help them defend their own rights.”
What is Alabama’s problem with the Voting Right Act? Brentin Mock finds out.