The NAACP is currently fighting what it calls nationwide voter suppression through various initiatives. President Ben Jealous spoke to theGrio about the Stand 4 Freedom March taking place tomorrow December 10 in New York City as an important call to arms in this battle over voting access. President Jealous invites us all to get involved on the local and national level to protect our right to participate in the political process by getting educated about the status of voting rights — and getting active with the NAACP.
TheGrio: What has been the biggest obstacle in promoting the importance of this march to the black community?
NAACP President Ben Jealous: We’ve actually gotten a great response from activists throughout the northeast. We’ve sought to mobilize from primarily within the five boroughs then within the tri-state area. We’ll have activists coming from as far away as South Carolina and Boston. These folks have been waiting to stand up to this massive attack on voting rights that our country has gone through state by state over the past year.
When we published an article about the release of the NAACP report on voting rights attacks, some commentators wrote that these issues could be resolved by people simply getting ID. Can you address this sentiment?
Seventy-five percent of black men in the state of Wisconsin currently don’t have a valid ID. In Texas, the ID law wouldn’t recognize your student ID, but it would recognize your gun license. It’s impossible to look at a bill like the one in Texas and say it’s not targeted.
It’s hard not to look at the Wisconsin governor’s subsequent decision to shut down ten DMVs all in the poorest areas and not feel like he must have known the impact that would have, making it harder for certain communities to have access. We at the NAACP have to deal with the carnage of this everyday. We deal with the students who are frustrated, because they show up at the poles and they’re turned away being told that unless they can produce a driver’s license from that state [they can’t vote,] because their student ID isn’t good enough.
The reality is — there was an argument for the poll tax. There was an argument for the literacy test. There was an argument for keeping women from voting. And they were all phrased in terms of vote security. Women it was argued shouldn’t vote because if she was married, her husband would have two votes because he would tell his wife how to vote. People who couldn’t pass the literacy test didn’t know enough to be allowed to vote, and could be too easily influenced by others. Vote security is a real issue, but the poll tax didn’t make voting more secure, discrimination against women didn’t make voting more secure, and nor will voter ID. It’s a solution without a problem.
George Bush had his Department of Justice spent five years looking for these types of impersonation cases, and in five years after analyzing millions of votes cast they came up with 86 cases — in five years. We have sufficient prosecutors in the Department of Justice to handle an 86 case over five years case load.
Another misconception is that ACORN sullied the concept of mass voter registration; therefore the left is to blame for creating the need for these laws.
This has been a holy grail of the wacky right for a long time. Years ago a right-wing senator trying to get a national voter ID bill passed held a press conference with a dog. He said we need a voter ID bill, because this dog was able to register to vote. [An attendant] asked, “Can that dog read or write? How’d he register to vote?” [The senator] got quiet. “Sounds like we need to find the person who signed up the dog to vote and prosecute them for voter fraud,” the person said. So they’ve been chipping away at this for a long time. Invoking vote security is a classic scare tactic.
The assumption that is being made is that most people have a valid, up-to-date driver’s license. Again, three-quarters of black men in Wisconsin don’t. One-half of blacks and Latinos in Wisconsin don’t. The rate is 25% nationally. Those of us who are so privileged to have our documentation up to date need to stop thinking about ourselves for a moment and think about the effect these laws are having on people who are not as fortunate as we are.
Do you think this trend could increase black voter apathy?
No, just the opposite. People who know their rights are under attack are more likely to turn out to vote. At first “vote security” sounds like common sense. And then folks actually look at the issue and they realize that thousands of people in their community and millions of people across the country are going to be disenfranchised.
When people attack the ability of your community to fully participate in the electoral process, they’re doing it for a reason. History has shown us that they are trying to make it easier to attack our other rights. That’s what we’ve found across the country — the more people know about these voter ID laws, the attacks on Sunday voting, early voting, and same-day registration — the more they realize there is a coordinated attack on access to the ballot box.
How many people do you expect to come to the march on Saturday, December 10?
We have buses coming from up and down the eastern seaboard, and all over New York. We know that there will definitely be thousands and thousands of people.
Is there a specific goal that you have for the march outside of raising awareness?
This march is designed to do three things. One, to get activists focused even before we get to 2012 on what we need to accomplish in 2013. We’ll start the 2013 legislative session with people having worked together for months to be prepared to execute a strategy to get back our rights in the states where they’ve been taken.
Two, we’re sounding the alarm, making it very clear to the country and the world that voting rights in this country are being systematically attacked at a magnitude not seen in over 100 years.
And three, we’re starting a process at the United Nations. Our country’s tradition of free and fair elections is the basis for most democratic reform throughout the world. An attack on voting rights here is something that will have global repercussions. World leaders don’t see us fighting back. So we are coming together in one place to raise our voices, marching to the UN for this reason.
The NAACP is one of a couple hundred non-profit organizations in this country that have UN official observer status. Official observer status allows you to offer oral and written testimony to the UN Human Rights Council and its various committees. So in the spring, when the Human Rights commission convenes in Geneva, we’ll be there representing voters from across the U.S. who have had their vote blocked by these laws.
Are we saying that the United States is committing human rights violations against its own people?
What we are saying is that state governments — Wisconsin, Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina, Florida and so forth — all have passed state-sponsored voter suppression legislation. And that these state governments are violating basic UN principles as enshrined in the UN Convention that calls for an end to all forms of racial discrimination — because these laws have been shown to have a disparate negative impact on minority communities.
Will there be social media means for people to follow this important march if they are unable to attend?
Yes. We are encouraging people to text STAND to 62227 so they can receive alerts throughout the year, about the march but also about the overall voting rights campaign. We are launching a voting rights campaign that will go on for two years that will get people first educated and then mobilized to get our rights back.