It’s not easy being black in America. It’s not easy being a woman either. It’s not easy being liberal. And it’s not easy being old. So, it’s certainly not easy being a 102-year-old liberal black woman in America.
In his State of the Union Address, President Obama told the nation that we should, “follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor.”
He then talked about the trouble Desiline had trying to vote on Election Day last year.
“When Desiline arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours,” he said. “And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. And hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her, because Desiline is 102 years old.”
Eventually, Desiline made it to the front of the line and voted. When she did, the President said, the crowd “erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read ‘I Voted.’”
Upon hearing Desiline’s story, Democrats and Republicans stood up, turned around to look at Desiline in the visitors’ gallery, and applauded. Speaker John Boehner even clapped. They were applauding Desiline’s grit and commitment to her civic duties as an American.
But her story is a troubling one, because centuries of progressive ballot-access work for women and minorities is in reverse today. Civil rights victories are being rolled-back by a network of Billionaire-funded organizations and politicians that don’t like democracy, and especially don’t want liberals and minorities voting.
This new era is best personified by the reaction of Fox so-called News' talking heads to Desiline’s story the next day. On Fox News Radio, Martha MacCallum said, “What’s the big deal? This is such a non-issue.”
Fellow misinformer, Bill Hemmer then quipped, “They held her up as a victim. What was she a victim of?”
Brian Kilmeade finally implied it was all the fault of Black people with poor manners in the voting line ahead of Desiline.
No one placed the blame on Republican politicians in Florida who, just like Republicans all around the nation, have intentionally passed laws and instituted policies to make sure that people like Desiline can’t easily or quickly vote.
Voter suppression has been with us since the days of John Adams and the Federalists. But this modern attack on voting rights can be traced back to the 1970’s. In 1973, the right-wing corporate think tank, the American Legislative Exchange Council, was co-founded by a Republican strategist named Paul Weyrich. It was later seeded with more funding by the Koch brothers.
In a speech in 1980, Paul Weyrich gave his take on voting saying, “Now many of our Christians have what I call the 'goo-goo syndrome.' Good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now.”
Weyrich added, “As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
The gauntlet was laid down. And from then on, the conservative strategy was simple: When in power, pass laws to make it harder for minorities, poor, and working people to vote.
So, in 2010, when billionaire money put Republicans in charge of several traditionally blue states around the nation, they immediately went to work to make it harder for the poor, minorities, and liberals to vote.
In Florida, where Desiline lives, this assault on democracy came in the form of reducing early voting days from 14 down to 8, and altogether eliminating early voting on Sunday before the election – a day traditionally used by a African Americans to vote after church.
Republicans in Florida also passed new restrictions on voter registration groups, making it so difficult to register new voters that the League of Women Voters gave up. As Weyrich said, Republican leverage in elections “goes up when the voting populace goes down.”
Other Republican-controlled states did the same, along with new ALEC-written Voter Suppression ID laws to block access to the polls for minorities, poor people, college students, and the elderly.
According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, 25% of blacks, 19% of Latinos, 18% of young people, 18% of seniors, and 15% of poor people lack the ID these new laws require to vote.
As a result, Election Day was once again crippled by long lines like Desiline experienced. On the other hand, of course, in the affluent, white, conservative districts, voting went pretty smoothly.
According to an Election Night survey by the AFL-CIO, 22% of blacks and 24% of Hispanics waited in voting lines for more than a half-hour. But, only 9% of whites faced similar long lines.
The same survey found that 16% of Obama voters faced long lines, while only 9% of Romney voters did.
A post-election report released by the Orlando Sentinel revealed that more than 200,000 voters in Florida didn’t vote because they were discouraged by the long lines and chaos at voting precincts in mostly minority areas across Florida.
Knowing that Florida was decided by just a few hundred votes in 2000, Republicans were very optimistic about disenfranchising more than 200,000 voters – most of whom would have voted for Democrats.
Of course, their efforts fell short. Barack Obama won Florida and swept most of the swing states. And he won in large part because of the determination of minority voters who knew Republicans were trying to take away their vote, so they showed up at the polls in huge numbers to fight back. People like Desiline Victor.
But nobody believes that just because Republicans failed this year, they’ll abandon their voter suppression efforts in future elections. That’s why the President brought this issue up in his State of the Union Address. It is a big deal – American democracy depends on everyone have equal access to the vote.
Desiline’s story is the perfect metaphor for what’s happening in America today.
Her fellow women only received the right to vote in 1920 after a century and a half-struggle against discrimination and patriarchy. And her fellow African Americans were, on paper, given the right to vote in 1866 with the 15th Amendment, but only fully received the right to vote free from discrimination in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act after 100 years of marching, getting their heads kicked in by police, and murdered by racists. And they're still facing Republican-built barriers to voting.
It’s been a long, brutal struggle in America to expand voting rights to more people than just white men.
It’s easy to vote when you’re a well-paid, white anchor on Fox so-called News, so maybe their insensitive comments were just the result of simple ignorance. These are wealthy white people who've never seen the tough side of America. But that doesn't excuse what purports to be a news network from ignoring the very real Republican efforts to suppress young, old, and black votes nationwide.
Shame on you, Fox so-called News.
And for the rest of us? It's time to take on ALEC and the billionaires and the Republican party, and work to make sure that every American citizen who's eligible to vote can easily and safely do so, knowing that their vote will be counted.
Anything less is simply un-American.