America's New War Over Civil Rights

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Does the pernicious war on voting access require any less of a moral response than the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s?

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Library of Congress

Welcome, Dennis Lieberman and Tom Ritchie Sr., to what surely is a select group in history -- election officials who get threatened with dismissal for trying to help voters vote. The two men work in Montgomery County, Ohio, and today they are fighting for their jobs. The men are Democrats and are involved in a political fight with the Ohio Secretary of State, a Republican named Jon Husted. On Friday, Husted suspended Lieberman and Ritchie for disregarding a recent early-voting directive from his statewide office.

What was the transgression that could cost the two men their positions? Lieberman and Ritchie had the temerity to propose that county election officials should continue to offer early-voting hours on weekends to registered Ohio voters so that more of those voters could more easily cast their votes. Earlier last week, under fire and in court, Husted had decided that all elections offices statewide would limit office hours this cycle, a move Democrats said would deprive Ohioans of dozens of days worth of early voting.

On Sunday, the Columbus Dispatch reported:

Husted said he based his decision to bar weekend hours after consulting with local elections officials, many of whom were concerned about cost. But Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association Election Officials, told the Dispatch that "we would make that work" if directed to stay open until, say, noon the Saturday before the election.

Husted now alleges insubordination. And what do his mutineers Lieberman and Ritchie say? Ritchie says that the Republican limitations on early voting hours represent "a continued attempt to suppress Americans from exercising their right to vote." Lieberman says: "I believe that this is so critical to our freedom on America, and to individual rights to vote, that I am doing what I think is right... In 10 years, I've never received a threat that if I don't do what they want me to do, I could be fired."

Two local Democrats standing up for "freedom and "individual rights" -- so naturally they have to be fired, right? The Ohio voting restrictions apply to all voters, regardless of race, color, creed, or financial status, right? That's what distinguishes today's professional assault on voting rights with the tendentious assault on voting rights in the last century, right? Wrong. There is no subtlety at play. There is no misdirection. Here is what Franklin County* Republican Party Chair Doug Priesse wrote over the weekend:

I guess I really feel we shouldn't contort the voting process to accommodate the urban -- read African American -- voter-turnout machine. Let's be fair and reasonable.

Priesse's other job title? He's an election official in Franklin County. Think Husted is going to try to fire him for making such a "fair and reasonable" suggestion? Me either. In Ohio, evidently, career trouble comes only to those election officials who seek to make voting more accessible to voters. Soon, a federal judge will issue a ruling that will resolve this ugliness. That's the good news. The bad news is that the Republicans, who will likely lose, will almost certainly appeal.

1962

Fifty years ago this month, in the scorching summer of 1962, the great civil rights story was the battle over how fast (or how slowly) the University of Mississippi would be forced to desegregate itself for James Meredith, the Air Force veteran who had first sought admission to Ole Miss in January 1961. Mississippi officials had stalled Meredith by bureaucratic means, by legislative action and by endlessly appealing the case. In 1962, the battle even broke out into public view before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

At the time, the Fifth Circuit was a lonely citadel of hope for black citizens, like Meredith, who were seeking a measure of equality with their white neighbors. Eisenhower judicial appointees like John Minor Wisdom and Elbert Parr Tuttle fought doggedly against obstructionist court colleagues and bigoted state officials to enforce the United States Supreme Court's self-contradicting mandate, contained in the second Brown v. Board of Education ruling, of  desegregating Southern public schools with "all deliberate speed."

Ultimately, however, it would take more than a judge's order to open up Ole Miss. It would take federalized troops sent by President John F. Kennedy. The headline over Claude Sitton's October 2,1962 story in The New York Times says it all: "3,000 Troops Put Down Mississippi Rioting And Seize 200 As Negro Attends Classes; Ex-Gen Walker is Held For Insurrection." All this, because 50 years ago there was still so much official resistance to the idea that blacks and whites should be equal under the law. 

Meredith made it into the University of Mississippi. But it would take three more years, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the extraordinary legislative skills of his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to gain passage of federal legislation designed to help protect minority voting rights from the whims and caprices of the majority. That's how we got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After the marches and the sit-ins and the protests and the arrests and Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.

One stark lesson from the Meredith era was how successful local officials could be in thwarting both the letter and the spirit of the law. Voting laws have evolved between now and then. The fight isn't so much about the right to vote but about the ability to exercise that right. And that has meant new tactics from those who continue to seek ways to suppress the votes of the nation's minorities (racial, economic, and otherwise). It's a national fight. And it may determine the outcome of the coming election. The fact is, the right to vote is nowhere near as well-guaranteed as you may have thought it was.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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