Winthrop Rockefeller would not recognize the Republican Party that he regenerated 40 years ago and that now is nominally run by his son, the lieutenant governor and party chairman.
The man who put the state minimum-wage law on the books, worked mightily to raise taxes on the wealthy and reduce them on the poor, fought the death penalty with all his heart and condemned bigotry in every form would find few allies in his party now — not a one in Arkansas and maybe two or three in the east. Rhode Island’s Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who announced the other day that he could not in good conscience vote for his party’s nominee, George W. Bush, comes to mind. Chafee thought he would write in the name of Bush’s father.
But here on the 50th anniversary of his arrival in Arkansas, ever so politely celebrated by Republican leaders, Rockefeller would be particularly chagrined to see what has become of the party of tolerance, black suffrage and equality. His party this year was dedicated in many parts of the nation to holding down the votes of black men and women and it was a good-enough strategy for party leaders in Arkansas, too. It was a critical part of the GOP strategy for keeping Bush in the White House and electing Republican senators in Ohio, North Carolina, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. African-American votes supplied Rockefeller his margin of victory twice, but now, even in Arkansas, they are prone to vote for Democrats.
In his first race for governor in 1964, Rockefeller said the polling place in much of Arkansas was ruled by intimidation and fear, and banishing that fear was his first and essential goal. He was talking mainly about east and south Arkansas, where blacks made up 40 percent or more of the population but a small fraction of the voters. He bankrolled the permanent voter registration amendment in the fall of 1964, which ended the poll tax and reduced the intimidation of black voters that the poll tax had made so easy. The liberation of black voters propelled him into the governor’s office in 1966 and 1968. Democrats would accuse him of buying black votes and using unethical inducements to get them to the polls.
Learning from a reasonably successful technique in Florida in 2004, Republicans sent poll workers to largely minority voting precincts to challenge voters, demanding to see voter-affidavit cards, driver licenses and other identifications and, finding possible technical infractions, telling people they weren’t eligible to vote. In Florida in 2000 many turned away at the prospect of harassment. Publicizing the massive activity in advance — going to court in Ohio to get orders to get thousands of party operatives inside the voting place — may have discouraged thousands of minority voters, especially those registered for the first time, from going. That anyway was the idea.
For a person who has never voted before, the act itself is a little intimidating. Anything that makes it a little more daunting — the hint of prosecution, for example, if they got something wrong on the registration — is enough for some to stay at home.
There was almost no such activity in white middle-class precincts — like, for example, mountain counties in Arkansas where Rockefellers and others fought the vote thieves.
In Ohio, Florida and other places Republicans loudly proclaimed that there was massive fraud in the voter-registration efforts by Democrats (but none in the equally massive registration efforts by Republicans) although there was scant evidence.
And in Arkansas there was Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, of all people, saying that Arkansas Democrats were complaining about intimidation of minority voters because Democratic leaders wanted them to be able to vote more than once, although he offered not a shred of evidence to support such an outrageous claim. Here is what he said at El Dorado: “You’ve heard people talk about voter intimidation. That means let us vote as many times as we need to win the race. That’s what it boils down to. We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen.” His daddy would have taken him to the parlor for a rebuke.
So when black voters queued up at Dunbar Community Center at Little Rock to vote early, First Lady Janet Huckabee hied herself there with much fanfare to check on the voters’ qualifications. The retired school teachers who were running the voting put her in her place, but the publicity and her stern visage in the paper may have had a little of the intended effect.
All of it puts one in mind of the good old days when white voting registrars and election judges in the South grilled black men and women who dared to show up to register or to vote to see if they were qualified under the flexible standards of the time. Recite the preamble to the Constitution, or the 11th amendment, they might say before sending the citizen away.
But here is the cheering news. Not many people can be intimidated this year. The long lines of determined voters, at minority precincts as well, gave testament that people thought more highly of the democracy than did partisan leaders.