It’s 1964 and Thomas Geary is telling Carl Gordon about and how whites use “literacy tests” to keep Blacks from voting. Thomas asks Carl, “Can you name all 67 of Alabama’s county judges and the year each was appointed to the bench? Can you tell me the year Mississippi was admitted to the Union? And how many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?” This exchange comes from my novel, Black Hearts White Minds.
Though a novel, the questions are not fiction. Those three questions are real questions from the 1960s southern literacy tests to exclude Black voters.
I think everyone would agree that the tests were racist, a denial of the fundamental American right to vote and nothing like that could happen today.
Not so fast.
Prior to the 2016 presidential election, 14 states had successfully instituted voter ID restrictions and requirements. President Trump has, without any substantiation, claimed that we suffer from widespread voter fraud that cost him the popular vote, and he appointed Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, America’s poster boy for stricter voter ID regulations, to run his Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Kobach wants every potential voter to have previously obtained and present a birth certificate, a passport or naturalization papers in order to vote.
This may not seem like a big deal to you. I dare say that most people reading this blog have a driver’s license or state photo ID, and know where to find or obtain an authenticated copy of their birth certificate. You are not the potential voter Trump and Kobach are trying to suppress.
For instance, North Carolina’s voter ID law deemed driver’s licenses, U.S. passports and veteran’s and military IDs acceptable for voting, but rejected student IDs, government employee IDs and public assistance IDs – the ones more likely held by poor and minority voters. The same for Texas, where a concealed-weapon license was acceptable but not a state employee ID. In some states, more stringent voter ID requirements are prospective only, so that long-time residents don’t need to comply, only new arrivals, like transient students and the poor.
These examples are just the way in which actual IDs are suppressing minority votes.
Other forms of voter suppression also are de rigueur in Trump’s America. The number of polling stations in poor communities has been reduced, thus increasing the wait time to vote. Absentee voting, more important for people struggling with two or three jobs and who can’t get away from work on the second Tuesday after November first, has been constrained. Some states have begun purging the voter-roles of people who have changed addresses or people “suspected” of having committed a felony. Without any notice, a person finds that she’s been mistakenly removed from the list of eligible voters only when she arrives to vote. Not surprisingly, this problem falls disproportionately on people of color.
So I ask, have we eliminated the literacy tests of the segregated South, or just adjusted them? What do you think?