Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Indiana's Restrictions on Voters Worse than 1965 Alabama? It's Not Even Close

Yesterday, WTLC host Amos Brown sparked a debate on whether new "restrictions" proposed by two Republican Senators would make Indiana like Selma, Alabama.  In Amos' Twitter post linking to an editorial he wrote he declared: "Read About Republican Efforts To Restrict Voters In Indiana in 2015 Worse Than Selma In 1965!"

Going to Amos' editorial, fortunately the radio host stepped a bit back from the Twitter declaration, posing his comparison more in the form of a question:
Amelia Boynton, one of the
organizers of the first Selma
voting rights marches, knocked
"Is Indiana turning into the Selma Alabama of 50 years ago?  Two bills in the Indiana Senate could impose new, severe restrictions on voting and voting rights almost as bad as the restrictions in Selma in 1965."
Still... "almost as bad?"  Seriously, Amos?

Let me say at the outset that I greatly appreciate the work Amos Brown does.  As a radio host and writer he has exposed more self-dealing and outright corruption than all the Indianapolis Star writers combined.  He also provides a forum for candidates, regardless of their party, to get much needed exposure.  Amos has strong opinions, another trait I appreciate.  However, I am a big fan of history and when Amos makes utterly baseless historical comparisons to advance his opinions, I have to call him out on it.

Before turning back the pages of history 50 years, let's take a look at the two bills of which Amos complains.  Senate Bill 466, introduced by Sen. Pete Miller (R-Avon) has introduced what Amos declares an "unnecessary rewrite of election law." Amos though focuses on his claim that the bill "would make it virtually impossible for college students to vote where they attend college in Indiana."  I don't have strong opinions on the issue.  It should be noted that even at best, college students are extremely poor voters.   As a Ball State college student, I was an exception to the rule in terms of voting.  However, even though I was going to school full-time in Muncie, I certainly didn't consider myself a Muncie resident.  I voted where I considered my real residence to be, my parent's home in Madison where I spent the summers.

The other bill is Senate Bill 535, authored by Sen. Michael Young (R-Indianapolis) which would require the addition of a person's voter identification number on a voter's application for an absentee ballot. According to the proposed legislation, the voter could get the number by calling the secretary of state's office or going on line to a special website set up to obtain the information.  The bill also requires that the secretary of state send out a mailing to each voter telling each person his or her voter identification number.  Young's proposal is undoubtedly aimed at the problem we have with our voter registration rolls that show many counties having more than 100% registration due to all the deceased voters and people registered at multiple locations.

But Amos didn't stop at saying these are bad ideas that could lead to disenfranchisement.  Rather he said that the proposals were so onerous that they could make Indiana's voting system as bad as that of Selma, whose voting obstacles and civil rights protests in response thereto sparked a movie of the same name.  

Unfortunately Amos' comparison undermines the obstacles black voters in the 1960s faced in the old Confederacy.  Although Selma was a majority black city, the city's voter registration rolls in 1965 were 99% white and 1% black. That situation sparked three voting rights marches that year, including the first one that ended up with 600 protesters being attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by state troopers and a county posse armed with billy clubs and tear gas.

Those who risked their lives to march in the Selma marches did so protesting a lot more than putting a number on an absentee application or where college students should vote.  Although guaranteed the right to vote by 15th Amendment, for African-Americans living in the states of the Old Confederacy, the guarantee was an empty one.  Because states had control over their own elections, southern states after the Civil War enacted a slew of methods to prevent blacks from voting.  Many of these new restrictions exempted people's whose grandfather's had the right to vote before the Civil War.  Obviously anyone who had descended from slaves, i.e. African-Americans, would not have been granted the waiver.

In the 1920s, the Democratic Party in many southern states adopted "white primaries which excluded blacks from voting for the Democratic nominee. In most places in the south, there was no Republican Party and thus the Democratic nomination was tantamount to election. It wasn't until 1944 that the white primary was struck down as unconstitutional racial discrimination by the Supreme Court.

But while white primaries had bitten the dust by 1965, Alabama African-Americans still faced enormous obstacles.  Alabama required an annual poll tax of $1.50 ($11.27 in today's dollars) and imposed literacy and understanding the constitution tests.  People wanting to register to vote had to go to the county courthouse and registration in many counties was only a couple days a week.  When it was learned that African-Americans wanted to register, many clerks simply closed the voter registration office.  Alabama voter registration forms were four pages or more and many counties required you have a "supporting witness" to vouch for you.

The effect of these discriminatory measures on African-Americans registration was substantial.  At the time of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, only 23% of African-Americans were registered to vote in Alabama and only 7% in Mississippi.  As noted above, the situation in Selma was even worse with only 1% black registration in city where African-Americans had a majority.

Returning to Indiana, the Secretary of State reports that Indiana has a registration of 4,593,222, when compared to the census numbers for adults over 18 who live in the state, that amounts to a 92% registration rate.  A conclusion that Republicans are trying to turn Indiana into Selma of 1965 by imposing "restrictions" on registration and voting can only be arrived at by ignoring history and downplaying the very real obstacles Africans-Americans have faced in securing the franchise.

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