Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch finally got their way in 2011. After their decades of funding the American Legislative Exchange Council, the collaboration between multinational corporations and conservative state legislators, the project began finally to yield the intended result.
For the first time in decades, the United States saw a steady dismantling of the laws, regulations, programs and practices put in place to make real the promise of American democracy.
That is why, on Saturday, civil rights groups and their allies will rally outside the New York headquarters of the Koch brothers to begin a march for the renewal of voting rights in America.
For the Koch brothers and their kind, less democracy is better. They fund campaigns with millions of dollars in checks that have helped elect the likes of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Ohio Governor John Kasich. And ALEC has made it clear, through its ambitious “Public Safety and Elections Task Force,” that while it wants to dismantle any barriers to corporate cash and billionaire bucks’ influencing elections, it wants very much to erect barriers to the primary tool that Americans who are not CEOs have to influence the politics and the government of the nation: voting.
That crude calculus, usually cloaked in bureaucracy and back-room dealmaking, came into full view in 2011.
Across the country, and to a greater extent than at any time since the last days of Southern resistance to desegregation, voting rights were being systematically diminished rather than expanded.
ALEC has been organizing and promoting the assault, encouraging its legislative minions to enact rigid Voter ID laws and related attacks on voting rights in more than three dozen states.
With their requirements that the millions of Americans who lack driver’s licenses and other forms of official paperwork go out and purchase identification cards in order to cast ballots, the Voter ID push put in place new variations on an old evil: the poll tax.
“We are in the midst of the greatest coordinated legislative attack on voting rights since the dawn of Jim Crow,” says NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. “Voter ID laws are nothing but reincarnated poll taxes and liter acy tests, and ex-felon voting bans serve the same purpose today as when they were created in the wake of the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteeing ex-slaves the vote—suppressing voting numbers among people of color.”
Voter ID laws represent only the beginning of the assault on voter rights. In states across the country in 2011, conservative governors and legislators who had swept to power in the 2010 election moved to restrict access to the polls in other ways. They ended election-day registration programs in state such as Maine, ending a practice that had allowed new voters to come to the polls, fill out a simple form and cast a ballot. They restricted early voting in states such as Ohio, making it dramatically harder for citizens to cast ballots in the run-up to an election. They scrapped weekend voting in Ohio, where working men and women had been able to cast ballots on their days off. They placed new restrictions on voting by students at colleges and technical schools, even going so far in Wisconsin as to move the primary election date to when most students were on summer break. They reduced the number of polling places in some states, making it harder for voters who lack transportation to get to the polls. And after they established the Voter ID requirements in Wisconsin, and said that citizens had to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get the proper paperwork, they tried to reduce the number of DMV offices.
“For nearly a century, there were Jim Crow laws in place that discouraged people of color from voting, explains Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights. “Today, there are different laws, but the objective is the same—to prevent millions from exercising their right to vote.”
No one who is serious about voting and elections misses the point of the project.
The point is not just to make it harder to vote. The point is to make it harder for citizens to elect legislators, governors, members of Congress and presidents who will regulate and tax multinational corporations such as Koch Industries, while at the same time establishing programs that meet the needs of the great mass of Americans. “Now, just as before, they are seeking to block us from voting in order to make it easier to come after our other rights,” says Mike Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers. “Everything we care about is at stake, from the right to a quality education to the right to a fair wage.”
It is with all of this in mind that the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund and allied civil rights and civil liberties organizations, churches and unions have endorsed the “Stand for Freedom” voting rights campaign, which will launch with a march Saturday from the offices of the Koch brothers to the United Nations. At the United Nations, the groups will mark Human Rights Day by calling for an end to assaults on voting rights in the United States.
The choice of the Koch brothers office as a starting point is not symbolic. It is practical. For decades, the Koch brothers and their foundation have funded ALEC and other groups that are now driving the attack on voting rights in states across the country.
The people are pushing back. In November, Mainers voted by an overwhelming margin to restore election-day registration. In other states, voting rights has become a central political issue. And, now, that issue is being raised at the headquarters of the Koch brothers—and the United Nations.
“From the beginning of our nation’s founding, Americans have understood that voting was fundamental to their pursuit of freedom and equal opportunity,” says Lillian Rodríguez López, President of the Hispanic Federation. “Any attempt to undermine the right to vote, especially when that effort is directed at historically marginalized groups, must be treated as an attack on the very ideals that created our country: democracy and equality. And that is why we stand up for freedom and continue to fight for the right to vote for all Americans.”