Monday, February 6, 2012

Lawmakers: League of Women Voters dangerous to democracy

Let's remember that although the Constitution was amended in 1920 to grant women the right to vote, South Carolina did not ratify that amendment until 1969.

Context is important, and we live in South Carolina, where an evolving elite aristocracy has ruled state matters -- and attempted mightily to prevent, avoid and delay federal intervention in those matters -- for more than 340 years.

Now it appears that our modern aristocrats can no longer tolerate allowing some people to vote, and they're moving aggressively to block that right.

The dust has barely settled in South Carolina since the Department of Justice refused to approve the state’s voter ID law, a discriminatory measure which would disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters, many of them African-American, elderly and young people. And yet, undeterred and brazenly determined, the state legislature is already taking another bite at the voter suppression apple.

This time, the legislature is rushing through a law that will severely restrict community-based voter registration drives.

House Bill 4549, modeled after a Florida law that forced the League of Women Voters and other civic organizations to abandon voter registration efforts in the state, would effectively shut down community-based voter registration drives in South Carolina, requiring any individual or organization to register with the state before assisting other South Carolinians in registering to vote, and subjecting those individuals or organizations to up to $1,000 in fines, even for honest mistakes like sending the forms to the wrong county or not putting enough postage on the envelopes.

The bill would discourage churches, teachers, colleges, and community centers from helping people to register to vote; it would discourage people like James Felder who, in 1963, while serving his country in the military, helped carry President John F. Kennedy’s body to Arlington National Cemetery, and who in 1970, became one of three black men elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives for the first time since reconstruction. Felder has since made his life’s work registering others to vote and with this new voter suppression bill in effect, he would likely have to give up that work.

The bill would also discourage teachers like Dawn Quarles who, since 2008, has helped her students register to vote as part of the government and politics classes she teaches in high school. As we’ve already seen in Florida, restrictions to voter registration will result in discouraging almost all voter registration drives throughout the state.

In 2008, South Carolina was an abysmal 42nd in the nation in voter turnout. Instead of wasting time and resources erecting additional barriers to voting, the state legislature should be encouraging greater participation in elections.

Broad political participation strengthens our democracy and ensures the preservation of all our other rights and freedoms. Voter registration groups play an important role in the process, making voter registration more accessible, especially for minority, student and low-income voters. The South Carolina legislature should abandon HB 4549 and focus instead on helping protect the right of all South Carolinians to vote.

Care to guess who's behind the state-based efforts to restrict voter registration?

A fellow named Paul Weyrich -- not coincidentally the co-founder of one gang called the American Legislative Exchange Council and another called the Heritage Foundation -- poured a lot of institutional effort and resources behind this "movement" before his death in 2008.

What's Weyrich's angle?

"I don’t want everybody to vote," Weyrich admitted while addressing a right-wing Christian audience in 1980. "[O]ur leverage in the elections goes up as the voting populace goes down," he added after denigrating those who seek "good government" through maximum, informed voter participation as people who suffer from the "goo goo syndrome."

This is shameful. As the South Carolina League of Women Voters aptly puts it on their website, "Voting is the most basic way that citizens participate in our political system, the foundation for the concept of representation, and a central tenet in the make-up of America's government."

How shameful that our state, for so long a bulwark of exclusion and discrimination, continues in the twenty-first century to push exclusionary tactics to maintain power among a small, wealthy and powerful elite.

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