The specter of Jim Crow

About a month ago, commenting on the anti-voting schemes being pushed by state Republican lawmakers, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) raised a provocative comparison. The chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee argued that the GOP intends to “drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws” and “block access to the polls.”

This caused a bit of a stir, and Wasserman Schultz backed off. But the argument was repeated yesterday by an even more high-profile figure.

Former President Bill Clinton Wednesday compared GOP efforts to limit same-day voter registration and block some convicted felons from voting to Jim Crow laws and poll taxes.

In a speech to liberal youth activists Wednesday, the former president called out proposals in battleground states like Florida and Ohio that could limit the voter rolls.

“I can’t help thinking since we just celebrated the Fourth of July and we’re supposed to be a country dedicated to liberty that one of the most pervasive political movements going on outside Washington today is the disciplined, passionate, determined effort of Republican governors and legislators to keep most of you from voting next time,” Clinton said at Campus Progress’s annual conference in Washington.

“There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today,” Clinton added.

I’m always glad when this issue gets attention, because it’s as scandalous as it is consequential, and I suspect most of the country doesn’t even realize it’s happening. That Bill Clinton is on the case should raise the story’s profile even more.

There is a concerted national effort on the part of many Republican state policymakers to make it harder for traditional Democratic voters to participate in the 2012 elections. Under the auspices of rooting out “voter fraud” — a problem that appears to exist largely in the over-active imaginations of GOP activists — Republicans are passing voter-ID measures, closing windows for early voting, and approving new laws restricting voter-registration drives. It’s not subtle, but it is disgraceful. The GOP fears losing in a fair fight, so the party is trying to rig the game.

Yes, raising the specter of “Jim Crow” adds a racial/segregationist element to the debate, which the right obviously finds offensive. But it’s not unreasonable to consider these recent efforts Jim Crow-style tactics for the 21st century. The point of both is identical — identifying those the right doesn’t want to vote and passing laws that put barriers between them and the ballot box. The goal here is voter suppression, plain and simple.

As E.J. Dionne Jr. explained a couple of weeks ago, “These statutes are not neutral. Their greatest impact will be to reduce turnout among African Americans, Latinos and the young. It is no accident that these groups were key to Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 — or that the laws in question are being enacted in states where Republicans control state governments.”

Noting a new GOP push in Ohio to make it harder for voters to know where to cast their ballot, Digby joked sardonically the other day, “Soon voting Democratic in some states will be as difficult as getting an abortion.”

That this might actually affect the outcome of the 2012 election should be a national scandal. That this is occurring with minimal national debate is a national embarrassment.