Clarence Jones

Q&A: Voter-ID laws unneeded and biased, says civil rights professor

Published: Monday, Oct. 1, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012 - 11:31 am

As the nation prepares to vote next month, more than 30 states have enacted or are in the process of enacting voter-ID laws. Most require voters to produce photo identification, which could affect millions of prospective voters who lack such government-issued IDs.

Proponents argue that the measures will reduce voter fraud. However, the nonpartisan News21 project found that since 2000 only one in 15 million prospective voters engaged in voter impersonation.

Clarence Jones, 81, is a visiting professor at Stanford's Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute and the University of San Francisco. Jones, who was King's personal attorney and speechwriter, calls the largely Republican strategy a "morally obscene" attempt to exclude African American and Latino voters.

Jones grew up in the days before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, when African Americans in the South were asked how many bubbles there were in a bar of soap or were told to recite the U.S. Constitution to exclude them from voting. Jones believes every American has a moral obligation to vote and honor the sacrifices of those who came before them. He said this year's voter-disenfranchisement effort is reminiscent of the 2000 presidential election in which George W. Bush's victory over Al Gore hung on a Supreme Court vote.

What happened in the 2000 presidential election?

A significant number of votes cast by African Americans were thrown out; the rationalization was they had not marked ballots properly. Had they been counted and included, it could have made the difference.

Could this happen again?

There are 33 states that have one way or another raised the voting-eligibility requirements, a euphemism for making it more difficult to vote. In some places, even driver's licenses are not acceptable as photo IDs. Instead of a utility bill, you need to go to a state-approved place to get a special ID, and some people don't have cars, or are working people with families.

This isn't just about the Voting Rights Act, but what went on before. When they discussed the right to vote, abolition of slavery, the 15th Amendment in 1870 granting black men the right to vote, it was all intended there would be no impediment to the right to vote.

The Voting Rights Act was passed to correct what was happening in the South, where they would ask an outrageous factual question, like who was the 13th president, or the names of members of Congress and their office address. The intent was to make it impossible for African Americans to vote.

What about voter fraud?

There has been minuscule voter fraud – one study showed there were only 10 (impersonation) cases since 2000. How incredible is it in the 21st century that there should even be an effort to raise voting-eligibility requirements? It should be going in the opposite direction. Voting is a sacred right; laws should be passed to make it as easy as possible, not as difficult as possible.

Why are states passing these requirements?

Clearly this was intended to suppress the vote. Almost without exception they were instituted by Republican-controlled legislatures and many of these efforts are funded by Americans for Prosperity and other right-wing (political action committees). The Republican leader of the Pennsylvania Legislature stated the new law requiring photo IDs at the polls would allow (Mitt) Romney to win Pennsylvania.

What do you think should be done about it?

While I appreciate all the legal efforts by the U.S. Justice Department, the NAACP and the Brennan Justice Center, at the end of the day, my experience with Martin King is that if you really want to stop this nonsense of voter suppression, stake out five or six state legislatures, put 100,000 people outside those statehouses and sit there nonviolently and say no work will be done until these laws are changed.

This is absolutely obscene. I know people who have been injured or killed trying to make it legal for Negroes to vote in the South. We will not stand for it.

Why does this matter in California?

I'm absolutely appalled by the 31 percent turnout in the last state primary.

What's so sad about this is here in California, there are virtually no barriers to vote, and we're taking it for granted.

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Read more articles by Stephen Magagnini



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