On Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit challenging the state's voter ID law. Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled in May that the law is unconstitutional. If the court doesn't agree and overturns Fox's decision, the law will disenfranchise minority, elderly and economically impoverished communities all over the state. Arkansas will once again be on the wrong side of history and 50 years from now our children will wonder how such a law could be in effect. To pass a law that discourages voting and makes it harder for those on the margins to vote, is a betrayal to democracy just as preventing the Little Rock Nine from attending Central High School was in 1957.
The cornerstone of any democratic country is the right to vote. Voting is a time when everyone is equal to one another regardless of race, class, socioeconomic background, religion or political ideology. Voter ID law is much more than a civil rights issue; it is a freedom issue and will again call into question the legitimacy of American democracy and who is considered a citizen here in Arkansas.
Anyone who pursues the history of voting in American will quickly discover that it is a story of continued voter suppression. In Tracy Campbell's "Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, and American Political Tradition-1742-2004," he chronicles centuries of suppression from the election George Washington in 1758 to the election of George W. Bush in 2000. Campbell also highlights in detail another scandalous part of voting history — the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans. From the constitutional convention that counted enslaved blacks as three-fifths of a person to Jim Crow laws that instituted poll taxes, a grandfather clause and literacy tests, Campbell's book is a sober reminder that individuals, political parties and governments have long sought to suppress voting rights among people of color.
Supporters of the voter ID law in Arkansas and elsewhere cite voter fraud as the reason. Yet, there is no significant empirical evidence to support the claim that in-person voter fraud is taking place in Arkansas or elsewhere in the country. With no evidence and a backdrop of an established history steeped in voter suppression, it's easy to see racial undertones undergirding this voter id movement.
The voter ID law movement began after President Obama was elected. Obama was the first victim of this movement when he was hectored to prove his citizenship by releasing a copy of his birth certificate. Like Obama, many African Americans and other minority groups experience a strong sense of citizen insecurity because of structural racism. There have been several examples over the past few years that support this claim. Look at Hurricane Katrina and how African Americans and other poor people were described as refugees and not citizens. More recently, the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., by a white policeman has inspired similar insecurity. People of color here in Arkansas and around the country deserve to feel secure about their citizenship and the voter ID law further exacerbates these feelings.
Just like with those who opposed the integration of Little Rock Central High, the only rational explanation for supporting Arkansas's voter ID law is racism.
If Arkansas is truly about the ideals of democracy, then the Arkansas Supreme Court should uphold Judge Fox's ruling that the state's voter ID law is unconstitutional. Moreover, efforts should be made to ensure more voting participation not less. Why not refocus efforts on creating a state holiday to ensure more people to vote? Additionally, why not allow citizens to register to vote on the day of elections as eight other states around the country do? Any lawmaker who is against any of these measures has to be taken to task.
Dr. Joseph Jones is executive director of Philander Smith College's Social Justice Institute.