Politics is not Patty Cakes. Everyone plays to win. Generations of political professionals have pushed the rules to the brink with new schemes for raising money, spreading rumors, running negative ads and controlling the press.
But as the 2012 elections come into view, even cruel, old political cynics see something beyond the edge; something frightening.
With a rising number of Hispanic and black voters pushing into the electorate — putting Republicans at a bigger disadvantage every day — the GOP has unleashed a brazen, ugly effort to discourage these new voters from ever getting near the voting booth. They are turning back the clock on voting rights in America.
According to a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, 5 million eligible voters — overwhelmingly young people and minorities — are likely to be barred from voting in the 2012 elections because of laws being ginned up by Republican governors and state legislators across the country.
These new laws include unprecedented requirements for photo identification and proof of citizenship. It is no secret that 10 percent of all Americans don’t have government-issued identification and that this includes nearly 20 percent of young voters and 25 percent of black voters.
In several states the new laws also eliminate early voting and same-day registration. These laws are being called for as necessary steps to halt voter fraud. But there is no evidence of even a small amount of voter fraud anywhere in the United States. Under President Bush the Justice Department pushed federal prosecutors to find voter fraud and they came up empty.
“There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today,” former President Clinton said in July.
The Brennan study points to 38 states where these new anti-voting laws have emerged in the last year. These include 2012 battleground states like Florida, Ohio and North Carolina.
Florida is the center of the GOP’s battle against the wave of new voters who lean to the Democrats. The Sunshine State’s new Republican Governor, Rick Scott, and his GOP-controlled legislature enacted several strict new voting regulations earlier this year. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has filed a formal complaint with the Department of Justice citing a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In its letter to DOJ’s voting rights division chief, the DSCC wrote: “[We see] it as no coincidence that the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature would institute voting changes that will disparately affect minority voters in an election year when suppressing the minority vote likely will help Republican candidates, but under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, minority voting rights cannot be bartered in the course of political gamesmanship.”
One particularly egregious tactic in Florida, but also in North Carolina and Ohio, is the elimination of early voting on Sundays. That simple step in the name of ease of voting helped people who have to be at their jobs during the week make it to the polls. Sunday is also the day when many black churches organize their members and help them vote.
There have been small, widely condemned efforts to shut the door on American votes in the last decade.
In a few instances, threatening, anonymous letters flooded poor, black neighborhoods warning that police and creditors would be checking anyone who voted. In another case fliers were posted in black neighborhoods announcing that the election was to take place a day later than previously announced. In a controversial move during the 2000 presidential election, police cars were positioned near polling places in minority neighborhoods in Florida.
With some organizational help from unions and liberal advocacy groups, citizens in some of these states are fighting back, with petition drives and litigation to overturn the voting restrictions.
These days, congressional Republicans seem to spend every news cycle attacking Attorney General Eric Holder. Ironically, one of their charges is that he did not aggressively pursue the most serious possible charges against a member of the New Black Panther Party who stood in intimidating fashion near a Philadelphia polling place in 2008.
It is time for Holder to stand up to something far more pernicious — the Republicans’ very real, widespread effort to distort the nation’s sacred political process.
It is time for the voting rights section of Holder’s Justice Department to accept the DSCC’s call for action against Florida’s Republican politicians.
Let that be Holder’s proud legacy — the 21st century attorney general who drew a line in the sands of history and refused to allow a return to the bad old days.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His latest book is "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) which was released in July. This piece originally appeared on TheHill.com.