Editor's Note: Kevin Gaines is a professor of history and Afroamerican and African studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of "Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture During the Twentieth Century." He is a past president of the American Studies Association.
By Kevin Gaines, Special to CNN
(CNN) - It is a stunning irony that the Republican Party, the onetime party of Lincoln that expanded democracy and voting rights after the end of slavery, has embraced voter suppression as a key strategy for winning the 2012 elections.
Defenders of a spate of voter ID laws claim they are trying to prevent voter fraud.
Their quixotic battle against an imagined crisis of voter fraud visible only to them undermines the voting rights of all Americans, and makes a travesty of our democracy.
Those seeking to prevent eligible voters from exercising their fundamental right of citizenship threaten to take us back to an era of state-sanctioned discrimination.
A battle is being waged in the courts over the survival and health of our democracy. The current crop of voter ID laws and other state attempts to limit access to the polls are so extreme that some measures to restrict voting rights are being reversed.
A federal district court recently upheld South Carolina’s voter ID law, though it will not take effect until after the 2012 election.
South Carolina has a particularly sordid history of excluding African-Americans from voting and office holding.
During the civil rights movement, black and white Americans gave their lives to make the nation honor the voting rights of all its citizens. People marched, braved jail, beatings and worse because for generations, African-Americans (and many impoverished whites, as well) were legally prevented from voting in Southern states.
Mindful of the past sacrifices of so many, people who value democracy do not want a return to those dark times.
Today, as in the past, attempts to remove African-Americans from the voter rolls are not simply about race. Like the poll taxes of the Jim Crow era, today’s voter ID laws are a race-neutral mechanism to prevent many eligible voters from voting. But these laws also disproportionately affect students, the elderly (many of whom have voted all their lives without incident) and the poor.
In 1940, as black and white civil rights activists challenged the constitutionality of the Alabama poll tax, The Tuscaloosa News agreed with those surviving legislators who enacted the law in 1901: “They feel that the poll tax provision … is the soundest safeguard for honest elections and that its removal would make Alabama subject to the same kind of machine politics found in northern cities where no poll tax exists.” Defenders of the current spate of voter ID laws and their tea party auxiliaries are thus part of a tradition in which outright discrimination is justified by cant about the integrity of elections.
Some of the voter ID laws subject eligible voters to bureaucratic hurdles worthy of Kafka’s fiction. In Texas, your state-issued voter ID card is “free.” But to obtain it, you must pay $22 for a birth certificate if you do not already have one. And if you were born out-of-state, or worse, never possessed an official birth record in the first place, as is the case with many elderly blacks born in the South, then tough luck.
The simple truth is that historically, the disfranchisement of African-Americans has undermined the rights and freedoms of others, as well.
It would do the same today. While the poll taxes of yesteryear disqualified many blacks locked in poverty, such laws also prevented impoverished whites from voting. In taking away the suffrage of whites as well as blacks, Southern state constitutions helped consolidate the political and economic dominance of wealthy whites over working-class and poor whites and blacks.
A similar dynamic of racial exclusion as a Trojan horse for a more comprehensive attack on democracy is happening today. The role of the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, which is helping draft state voter ID laws, points to a top-down strategy to ensure a more favorable political climate for the conservative policy agendas of deregulation, ending Social Security and Medicare, more tax cuts for the rich, and ending the collective bargaining rights of public employees.
At the height of the civil rights movement, Bob Dylan sang that poor whites whose hatred supported and sustained Jim Crow segregation were only pawns in a game controlled by wealthy, powerful whites. Like those who defended the poll taxes, those involved in today’s voter suppression will deny that they are engaged in what amounts to racial profiling and discrimination.
But they, too, are only pawns that are unable to see that their own rights and future are imperiled by the far-reaching corporate agenda of the Republican Party.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kevin Gaines.