Praying for Rain

How can a self-respecting political party actively work to reduce the number of Americans voting?

I haven’t seen anything like this since the Harry Byrd days in Virginia. During the ’50s and ’60s, I lived in Arlington; the line back then was, “Northern Virginia pays all the taxes, and rural Virginia gets all the money.” That was all courtesy of the Senator Harry Byrd political machine, which ran the state.

Byrd co-authored the “Southern Manifesto,” declaring “massive resistance” to school desegregation. No surprise, he was a big-time voter suppressionist, too. Joke was that Harry always prayed for rain on Election Day — that way, the Byrd faithful would turn out, but no one else. He scheduled all statewide elections in off years, which ensured the lowest possible turnout. And then there was Harry’s favorite, the good old poll tax. Tossed out by the 24th Amendment, which was ratified in 1964, Virginia ignored the ruling and continued the practice of charging voters a tax in state elections until 1966.

I remember those days walking into polling booths after the amendment passed and still being handed a poll tax bill. I would hand it back and say something like, “You can’t require that.” The Byrd stooge would just take the bill back and hand me my ballot. But what if I had been intimidated? Or didn’t know the law?

That’s exactly what’s going on in Ohio today: Billboards announce that voters must present a photo ID (even after the courts dumped the requirement); efforts to stop early voting and to limit voting hours; sinister “poll watchers.”

Racism was what voter suppression was about and still is. The old Looney Tunes character, Foghorn Leghorn, was based on Sen. Beaureguard Claghorn, a radio and film character who lampooned the Southern politician in the postwar years. Some of Foghorn’s best lines were taken directly from Claghorn’s speeches.

There were plenty of Southern politicians who could have been the inspiration for old Foghorn, but Sen. Theodore Bilbo might have been the worst. About the poll tax, Bilbo was unrepentant: “If the poll tax bill passes, the next step will be an effort to remove the registration qualification, the educational qualification of Negroes. If that is done, we will have no way of preventing the Negroes from voting.”

Bilbo supported Al Smith in 1928 even though the very word “Catholic” caused him to froth at the mouth. His anti-Catholicism was that deep. But Herbert Hoover left him no choice because, Bilbo said, Hoover had met with a black woman — a member of the Republican National Committee, in fact — and actually danced with her.

So here we are, half to three-quarters of a century later, and we see Romney’s Republican Party trying to set back the clock. We see voter suppression efforts throughout Bilbo’s South — in South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi. But, you say, what about Ohio and Pennsylvania? What’s suppression in these states got to do with race? Well, as a matter of fact, when you get to southern Ohio, especially, you are in the South.

Racism still has appeal in these parts; it especially works well when energized by what many people in those parts also don’t like, the so-called “elites” — aka, educated people. Consider the Kent State massacre. The governor responsible for the outrage was a Republican, James Rhodes. Raised in the tiny southern Ohio town of Coaltown, raised in a mining family, he was a college dropout (didn’t make it past freshman year), and hated college kids almost as much as he hated blacks. About the student war protesters at Kent State, Rhodes said: “They’re worse than the Brownshirts, and the Communist element, and also the Night Riders, and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”

Two days later came the massacre. Four students killed, one just on her way to class, nine wounded. Rhodes’ National Guardsman fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds.

Coaltown people voted for Rhodes then, and too many of them would vote for him now. Today, it isn’t that they like Mitt Romney — who does? — it’s that they hate an educated black man. Too many of them hate what Barack Obama represents. Issues have nothing to do with it. And that’s what’s behind all the voter suppression going in right now in Ohio and, perhaps less effectively, in Pennsylvania.

So we see the Virginia poll tax scam happening all over again. And like half-century ago, if the voter knows the law, it’s just so much bluster; but some voters will be scared away, while others just won’t show up.

What’s worse is the fact that the Republican Party and Romney’s campaign know exactly what’s going on. It’s a variation on Richard Nixon’s racist, anti-elitist “Southern Strategy,” complete with tactics that would make Bilbo and Byrd proud. Whatever it takes, just keep the blacks from voting.

Differences on issues aside, what these suppressionists are doing and promoting should disgust civic-minded people everywhere. 

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.