The 2012 election is taking pace in the midst of an economic crisis that is having a devastating impact on working people around the world, union and non-union. Naturally, working families in the U.S. are absorbed in the day-to-day struggle to survive in difficult times.
However, we also face a political crisis. Well-funded conservative voter suppression efforts seek to turn the clock back to the days when workers couldn’t organize and the only people who could vote were white men who owned property.
After the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which unleashed unlimited “independent” corporate political expenditures, billionaires bankrolled the Tea Party movement and let loose a flood of cash to elect over 600 new Republican legislators and governors in the 2010 mid-term elections. Political control shifted from Democrats to Republicans in states all over the country, as well as in the U.S. House. The American Legislative Exchange Council, the coordinating body for right wing legislative initiatives, developed a national voter suppression strategy based on direct attacks against the groups that made Obama’s election possible by voting in record numbers in 2008: union members, young people, people of color (especially African-Americans and Latinos) and recent immigrants.
These voter suppression initiatives included direct attacks on public sector collective bargaining, right to work (without a union) laws, paycheck deception, voter i.d. laws and anti-immigrant laws.The outcome of the 2012 elections will directly impact the economic and political crises we face now.
Why focus on voter suppression?
Last year, Tea-Party inspired legislators in 34 states introduced voter ID laws that, in effect, would disenfranchise 21 million voters who don’t possess the kind of ID these laws mandate, even though years of research have shown voter impersonation to be an extremely rare, almost nonexistent problem.
So why is there such a concerted effort to pass voter suppression and anti-union laws now? It’s simple: The 2008 Presidential elections saw record numbers of union members, students, people of color, recent immigrants and low income voters cast their ballots. Some 15.1 percent more African-Americans cast ballots in 2008 than in the 2004 elections. For Latinos, the increase in 2008 was 28.4 percent. These are the same communities whose votes would be blocked disproportionately if voter ID and anti-immigrant laws were passed. Similarly, weakening unions removes one of the last obstacles to total political control by billionaires and their allies.
These laws should be opposed on their merits, because they are un-American—they are designed to both keep people from exercising their hard-won right to vote and to dilute the impact of their votes if they do. In one sense, they are trying to hold back the tide of change. On the other hand, they could also have a significant, long-term impact on the kind of country we live in, and on our ability as workers to band together for a voice at work.
Voter Suppression: What’s the State of Play?
Let’s look at the potential consequences of voter suppression legislation in just three of the dozens of states that were targeted after the Tea Party sweep in the 2010 mid-term elections: Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin. Each of those states was a staging ground for the assault on workers’ rights that began last winter. All are considered election battleground states that could go either way in the 2012 elections.
Thus, these three states alone, if brought from the undecided to the Obama camp, would raise the President’s projected electoral votes from 202 to 259–within one small-to-medium size state of the 270 he needs for victory.
Anti-union legislation was proposed and passed in all 3 of those Republican-controlled battleground states in 2011. Let’s just look at the state of play in two of them, Ohio and Wisconsin:
Ohioans overwhelmingly voted in a November referendum to repeal that state’s virtual ban on collective bargaining, 61-39%. The monumental effort behind that victory put the infrastructure in place for a tremendous ground game in the November election. Now Republican leaders are panicking, with the Attorney General calling on the legislature to repeal the voter suppression initiative they passed last year, out of fear that Democrats will turn out in massive numbers in November to vote on the referendum to repeal it. At the same time, the enemies of labor have filed the paperwork to get a Right to Work (without a union) Constitutional amendment on the ballot in Ohio this November.
The Wisconsin recall will set the stage for the Presidential election in November. Wisconsin was one of several Midwestern states (like Ohio) that gave Barack Obama solid victories in 2008 but then, upset about continuing economic woes, elected Republicans, including Governor Scott Walker, in significant numbers in 2010.
Wisconsinites submitted over 1 million signatures to recall Scott Walker on January 17, shattering all expectations, leaving the threshold of 540,000 in the dust, and demonstrating the depth of continued public outrage over the attack on collective bargaining he unleashed last winter. And the good news doesn’t stop there. United Wisconsin also submitted hundreds of thousands of additional signatures supporting the recall of 5 Walker allies, including Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch.
If Walker is recalled, he will be only the third Governor in the history of the Republic to be handed that fate by angry voters. It will show that Wisconsinites, like their neighbors in Ohio, have repudiated the Tea Party agenda driven by far-right politicians who came to power during the 2010 mid-term elections with the financial help of billionaires like the Koch Brothers, taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision.
Workers’ rights activists in the Sunshine State defeated the most outrageous of the avalanche of anti-union bills pressed by Republican state legislators in 2011, a Worker Gag law that would have prohibited union dues money from being used for political purposes without similarly limiting corporate dues. They also defeated a bill that would have required members of public unions to recertify their unions each year, a bill that would have required unions to send each member a reminder of how they can decertify the union, and a bill that would have prohibited local communities from passing ordinances to prevent theft of wages by unscrupulous employers. However, the most right wing Florida legislature in 60 years did succeed in passing a number of new laws that will be deeply harmful to workers and ordinary people. They passed a law which, in a time of record joblessness, reduces the duration of unemployment benefits by up to 54%, depending on the state’s unemployment rate. Right wing Republican Governor Rick Scott also signed a new law that ends teacher tenure and establishes a merit pay plan based on student test scores.
Direct voter suppression legislation:
Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin were also among the many states in which Republican politicians passed vote suppressing “voter i.d.” laws in 2011. A report by Sarah Jaffe describes the impact of the voter i.d. laws in those three states:
Florida. The ground zero of voter suppression … Former President Bill Clinton turned his wrath Rick Scott’s way over one provision, that imposes a five-year waiting period for ex-prisoners to get their voting rights back.
“Why should we disenfranchise people forever once they’ve paid their price? Because most of them in Florida were African Americans and Hispanics who would tend to vote for Democrats, that’s why,” he said.
Scott’s bill requires outside groups who register voters to register their volunteers with the state and face fines if they don’t turn in ballots within 48 hours—the League of Women Voters says it’ll shut down voter registration activity.
It cuts down early voting from 15 days to eight—this after the 2008 election saw more than half of all votes in Florida cast early or by absentee ballot.
Cristina Francisco-McGuire of the Progressive States Network noted of 2008:
“… Overall, 1.1 million African American voters cast ballots in the state [in 2008], and 96% of those votes went to Obama. Obama won the state by a margin of less than 240,000 votes, thanks in part to the 54% of African American voters who cast a ballot at early voting sites.”
… The Florida ACLU and Project Vote have challenged the law under the Voting Rights Act of 1965—and in five counties, the law cannot go into effect without pre-clearance by the Justice Department because of the long history of black voter suppression there. Historian Karl Shepard, incensed by attacks on voters in Florida and around the country, noted the long history of Southern voter disenfranchisement, and warns, “Welcome to the new face of Jim Crow – in 2011 – black people and college students.”
(Ohio State Rep. Robert Mecklenborg was one of the key sponsors of Ohio’s bill that [requires] a driver’s license or one of five other forms of ID to vote. It’s been called possibly the nation’s most restrictive voter identification law because of the narrow range of acceptable documents. Meanwhile, not content with pushing for stricter requirements for voters, Ohio Republicans passed a bill that will shorten the period of time in which people can vote, and eliminate the “Golden Week” in which voters can both register to vote and cast an in-person absentee ballot. Early voting allows people without flexible schedules more time to vote and cuts down on long election-day poll lines, and same-day voter registration has been shown to significantly increase voter turnout.…
Meredith Clark called [Wisconsin Governor] Walker’s voter suppression bill his “evil genius masterpiece,” and it’s easy to see why. The bill changes the residency requirement from 10 days to 28 days before the election (effective immediately), shortens early voting (also effective immediately), enacts a strict photo ID requirement as of 2012 that will require state overhaul of student ID as well as requiring extra proof of residency from students … Clark noted:
“According to a University of Milwaukee study, non-white Wisconsin voters are far less likely to have a valid driver’s license than white voters, and nearly a quarter of voters older than 65 lack one. This means thousands of elderly and men and women of color will be required to pay for new identification cards before they will be allowed to exercise their right to vote. There are four times as many people of color living in poverty as there are white people. Democratic State Senator Lena Taylor called it a poll tax, and she’s right.”
Since Jaffe wrote her report, Ohio workers’ rights activists have succeeded in placing a referendum on the ballot to repeal the voter i.d. law there. Under Ohio law, that means the law doesn’t take effect unless and until voters approve it.
In short, strong worker fightback struggles in each of these three Republican-controlled battleground states rolled back or blocked Tea Party anti-union measures. Ultimately, Republican anti-union and voter-suppression measures failed completely in Ohio, and had mixed success in Wisconsin and Florida.
As busy as working families are fighting for survival in this desperate economy (and it is desperate for working folks out there, despite the rosy picture painted by the corporate media), it is also vital that we take a look at the big picture and realize just how high the stakes are this election year, and how seriously these union-busting and voter suppression laws could impact our futures.