This article is sponsored by Villegas Headstones and Monuments – Support them because they support us.
One night in the late 1950s, Thomas Armstrong attended a meeting on the campus of Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. At the time, Tougaloo was the only place in Mississippi, Armstrong said, where an interracial group could meet and discuss what they wished.
This night, a young NAACP field organizer was lecturing passionately about a massive injustice that had occurred several years earlier.
In 1955, in Jefferson Davis County, there were 1,362 registered voters, Armstrong recalled. The following year, there were only 50. More than a thousand voters in that area had been arbitrarily redacted from the rolls. The field organizer called off some names of voters who’d been redacted.
“One or two of them he mentioned were my family members,” Armstrong said during an interview conducted earlier this year.
At the end of the meeting, the young NAACP organizer wanted to know how many of the students would go throughout the bayous of Mississippi and teach the disenfranchised about the registration process.
“I had to go,” said Armstrong, a Mississippi native. The doe-eyed Tougaloo student was partly rattled by the organizer’s reasoned, logical appeal and partly dazed by the power of his personality. That organizer, a young man named Medgar Evers, would become a moral mentor and hero to Armstrong.
“Medgar marked my path,” Armstrong recounted. “He fought both in France and Germany during World War II. He received a purple Heart. He was the bravest man I ever knew. On June 12, 1963, he was shot dead after attending a civil rights meeting — 17 days after his 38th birthday.”
Evers’ bravery would rub off on Armstrong, who would go on to play an integral part in Mississippi’s now-historic get out the vote efforts during the famous Freedom Summer in 1964. In 1961, he would help desegregate this country’s interstate highway system by assisting jailed freedom riders in his state.
But by his senior year of college at Tougaloo, Armstrong had attracted the attention of Mississippi’s Sovereignty Commission, a spy and domestic terrorist organization designed to use fear-tactics to keep black Mississippians in their place. Armstrong was short-listed by the organization to die, but with counterintelligence tactics of their own, Armstrong’s family found out about the Commission’s plans and shipped his off to Chicago before they could be carried out.
__ MORE AFTER THE AD __
Click the photo below to see what these angels have in common!
When past is prologue
More than fifty years later, Andrea Zopp, the president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, stood slightly shivering in the alcove in front of the Cook County Administration building.
Her testimony about her grandfather registered with network news mics and ricocheted off the steel and concrete modernism of a giant fork-like sculpture that punctuated just how far she was from Columbia, Mississippi, the placed where her grandfather lived — and less than a two hours’ drive from where young Thomas Armstrong received his marching orders from Medgar.
“My grandfather […] didn’t have a chance to vote,” she said. “He wanted to vote. He wanted nothing more in his life [than] to vote, but he was a black man in Mississippi and in order to vote they told him when he went to the polls he had to recite the Bill of Rights of the Constitution from memory, which would be really hard to do if you were well educated. And even then, if you knew that was what they were going to ask you — each time you would go they would change things. So [my grandfather] never voted.”
Zopp and other voting rights activists and elected officials fear that the same spirit of subtle suppression and exclusion based on race and economic background is relevant in this year’s gubernatorial election.
“The absolute right to vote that we have here in Illinois is really important to me and to see the restrictions that are put on the right to vote in other states is offensive to me,” she said. “We should never restrict the right to vote; we should be doing everything we can to encourage voting, to expand the right to vote.”
Blake Sercye, the founder and chairman of the nonpartisan Committee to Protect Illinois Voting Rights, called last Sunday’s press conference at which Zopp spoke to drum-up awareness of a ballot initiative that Illinois voters will see when they go to the polls on November 4.
“In Shelby County vs. Holder, the Supreme Court invalidated critical provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In the wake of that, we saw state legislatures and courts start to pass laws that diminish voting rights. We don’t want that to happen here in Illinois,” the Austin resident said at Sunday’s press conference.
So far, 34 states around the country, most of which are controlled by Republican legislatures, have voter ID laws in place, which require would-be voters to show some form of photo identification in order to vote.
The laws are prefaced on the claim that, nationwide, citizens in certain areas are skirting election laws, such as voting twice and impersonating other voters.
The problem with that claim, most experts say, is that it isn’t true. However, the argument has been around for a while and has only been amplified as what the Center for Politics describes as the “Incredible Shrinking Republican Base” becomes more and more relevant.
“[T]oday’s voters are less likely to be white, less likely to be married, and less likely to consider themselves Christians than voters of just a few decades ago,” wrote Alan I. Abramowitz on the Center’s website in 2008. All of those demographics comprise the Republican Party’s most loyal base of support. Those are also the least likely demographic groups to be targeted by voter ID laws and other so-called ‘voter integrity’ tactics.
A November 2, Chicago Tribune article stated that this election, most of the Illinois Republican Party’s claims of voter fraud have been concentrated in largely African American neighborhoods in the city.
This is despite the fact that city election officials don’t take the claims seriously or that “prosecutors in recent years have filed just a handful of vote fraud cases across the state, and most of those have come outside of Chicago,” according to the Tribune.
In 2006, a Department of Justice study found that between 2002 and 2005, there were 197 million votes cast for federal candidates; of those, only 40 were indicted for fraud. Less than 0.1 percent of votes cast during those years were ruled fraudulent.
Conservative Judge Richard Posner, appointed by Ronald Reagan to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, said that he was once a believer in voter fraud until he looked at the evidence.
This month, in a dissent against his court’s decision not to rehear a voter ID law case out of Wisconsin, Posner wrote:
“Some of the ‘evidence’ of voter-impersonation fraud is downright goofy, if not paranoid” and that there is no evidence that the problem of voter impersonation or inflated voter rolls exist.
“This implies that the net effect of such requirements is to impede voting by people easily discouraged from voting, most of whom probably lean Democratic,” wrote Posner, who is one of the most widely respected legal scholars in the world.
Sen. Raoul said that the point of amending the Illinois constitution is to safeguard voting rights from “future governors and general assemblies who try to eviscerate the protections we have on the right to vote.”
The new amendment would explicitly prohibit all new election laws and procedures that infringe upon an individual’s right to vote based on race, sex, language, religion, income, sexual orientation or national origin. In order to become law, the Right to Vote amendment must receive at least 60 percent approval from voters on Tuesday.
Although Illinois doesn’t currently have voter ID laws, Raoul said, there are bills advocating for them that are sitting in the Illinois General Assembly.
The Senator, who sponsored the Illinois Voting Rights Act to protect voting rights in the redistricting process and a largely bipartisan resolution for the Right to Vote Amendment, said that he was inspired after working on President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.
“I watched people down in Florida wait 8 to 9 hours to vote,” he said Sunday. “At the same time, [I was] hearing about purging Latino voters from the voting rolls.”
He said that, this year, he hears the same language about what Judge Posner considers non-existent voter fraud from Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner.
At a November 23, town hall meeting in Elmhurst, Rauner was asked by an audience member, “How do we make sure that those who love Obama don’t vote six, seven, eight, 10 times?”
“Fair point,” Rauner said. “We have a massive fraud, voter-integrity issue in Illinois.”
As Posner and other constitutional experts have observed, much of the Republican-led ‘voter integrity’ efforts are targeted in largely minority communities such as Austin.
“What we’ve seen in over 30 states now are voter suppression laws masking as voter ID laws,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
“Unfortunately it’s often young people, low-income people, African Americans, people who either don’t have drivers licenses or who don’t have resources to purchase government ID,” she said during an interview Sunday.
“In our democracy, the right to vote is the fundamental right we should all have. We don’t want to see a voter suppression law put in place here in Illinois. It would have a devastating impact in all communities who wouldn’t be able to participate in government.”
“Just yesterday, I went to early vote,” said Sercye, the lifelong Austin resident and activist. “A woman was there and she looked at someone and said, ‘I didn’t bring my ID I can’t vote.’ I told her no, you don’t need your ID.” VFP