Comparing today's voting restrictions to those of the past

Each time there has been a demographic shift in America that threatens the existing balance of power, new election laws have appeared to try to insulate the electorate from the emerging population.

The most obvious demographic shift threatening the balance of power was emancipation. With it came the right to vote for African American men, which was decisive in Southern states where former slaves far outnumbered whites. This was considered unacceptable, and, starting in 1874, a wave of political violence and terrorism (until recently, celebrated as heroic terrorism) overthrew democratically elected governments and rigged elections in order to install voting restrictions and other practices which barred African Americans from voting in the South for 80 years.

Immigration has also prompted voting restrictions. Voter registration — something we take for granted today — was invented in 1820 by Pennsylvania aristocrats who began to fear that German immigrants might shift the balance of power. Under the new law, voter registration was required EACH YEAR in order to vote in a given election, and — get this — it was required only in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh where the German immigrants primarily settled. In the rest of Pennsylvania, voter registration was not required at all.

The state of New York passed a law in 1921 requiring an English literacy test in response to immigration waves that included Italians, Poles, Jews, and Slavs. New York also implemented a voter registration law that required people to register every year, and even moved election day to Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 not only prevented Americans of Chinese ancestry from voting, it prevented them from claiming birthright citizenship undermining the 14th amendment.

The current demographic shift, so often mentioned in politics today, first revealed itself in the 2000 census data. Soon after summary reports were released showing that America will soon become a minority majority country, a election lawyer appointed by President Bush to the US Department of Justice Voting Rights division launched a 5-year investigation to search for "voter fraud." The operative, named Hans von Spakovsky, was able to find 26 cases of voter impersonation out of 173 million votes cast between 2002 and 2005. That's not the kind of percentage that could undermine the "integrity" of an election, but, that didn't stop the hysteria from spreading, particularly after the 2006 and 2008 elections where Asian, Latino, and African American voters played decisive roles. Television and radio productions created in the public a fear that voter fraud — and not demographic shift — explained electoral outcomes, which in turn helped to popularize the idea of voter ID laws. Politicians needed only to point to their constituents and say, "I'm responding to their very real fear," even if the threat of in-person voter fraud wasn't real at all.

Today, von Spakovsky works for the Heritage Foundation and you'll never guess his job. He goes from state to state telling lawmakers how to implement new voting restrictions.

The United States had never had a voter ID law in its entire history when the 2000 census data came out. Today, 30 states have some form of voter ID requirement. And, just as voting laws are being manipulated to make it harder for the People to influence elections, campaign finance laws are being manipulated to make it easier for money to influence elections. 

We could consider historic precedent as we interpret recent events like the "Citizens United" decision and new voting restrictions being passed in swing states like Ohio and North Carolina. Or we could limit our consideration to something we heard on television. We're all free to make that choice, but it doesn't hurt to know our history.

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Why should we talk to each other?

Since I began my journey advocating for civil and informed dialogue, many people have made dismissive comments about the idea of dialogue and deliberation. I want to state again why dialogue is so important.

First of all, dialogue is always necessary for peacefully resolving any conflict. 

Secondly, so much of what we do in politics is about communication, shaping narrative, helping people create meaning out of their experiences.

Think about the place of the First Amendment in our Constitution and our understanding of freedom. Think about how we use the money in politics. How do Super PACs and campaigns use the big money donated to them? Majority goes to "media buys." Money is used to influence how we think, talk and vote.

If We the People remain alienated, fearful, and hateful, we will become vulnerable to manipulation and misinformation. We make room for plutocracy and other non-democratic forms of government to take hold. 

Talking to our fellow citizens in a respectful manner and listening to each other, thinking together, informing each other, is the best antidote to the scourge of propaganda. 

Lastly, we need to create opportunities where we can just be together and reinforce "We the People" as a civic identity. We can't have a functioning democratic process if we hate each other and refuse to talk to each other.

We can reclaim a government of, by, for the people by changing how our behavior: how we get our information and how we vote. 

My Journey into America's Divide


For most of 2010 through 2012, I was trying to figure out answers to these questions: Why are the American people so divided, and hostile to one another? How will we meet the many challenges we face when there is conflict among the people and gridlock in Washington?

I worried at times that we were going to slide into deeper economic turmoil and perhaps even violence. I also feared that our division was aiding a gradual slide into plutocracy — governance by the elite, the super wealthy. In other words, we were being divided and conquered.

Years from now historians may note the irony that in January 2010 the Supreme Court ruled on the Citizens United case that opened the way for unlimited political spending by corporations during a period when the citizens were disunited, and locked in a culture war. Disunity may not cause plutocracy, but it enables it.


By the summer of 2012, I’d wake up with an unshakable urge to hit the road and just start talking to my fellow Americans. I could try to have the kinds of conversations that I thought we needed to have as a country. I wanted to understand better the nature of our division by learning more about our history, and by seeing how people are surviving in these trying times, hearing people’s personal stories, and sharing some of mine. I especially needed to know that I could talk to people of backgrounds and beliefs very different from my own.

In November 2012, Eric Byler and I set out on a journey across America with a video camera and my old cocker spaniel, Dudley.

AngryOldMan4.jpgWe had no idea that we would end up spending over a year on the road, the majority of that time in North Carolina.

We started our filming on election day in Prince William County, Virginia, where our last documentary project, 9500 Liberty, was filmed.

In Prince William County, a swing county in a battleground state, we witnessed and documented five-hour lines at River Oaks precinct, the polling station with the most African American voters in the county. The scene there reminded me of a disaster area, with people forced to improvise after an unexpected catastrophe. Volunteers were distributing bottled water, food, and chairs hoping voters would not give up and go home.

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North Carolina, a Laboratory for Trickle-down Economics

During North Carolina's 2013 legislative session, a fierce debate took place over how to change the state tax code. Because Republicans had won a super majority in the General Assembly as well as the governor's race in 2012, the real tug-of-war centered around an aggressively conservative tax reform package championed by State Senator Bob Rucho, Co-Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. A less aggressive proposal was preferred by House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is likely to be the Republican nominee to challenge US Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat.  

The differences were over to how to make up for the lost revenue caused by cuts in the income tax rate, corporate taxes, and the estate tax. Should they expand sales taxes? Should they tax social security? Which tax exemptions should they eliminate?

Rucho-Speech-sm.jpgSen. Rucho told us during our interview with him that he was intent on eliminating state income taxes altogether, and installing a consumption-based tax system. Speaker Tillis went on record to say there was a "philosophical divide"between the House and Senate Republicans. Gov. Pat McCrory (R) sided with House Republicans, and Sen. Rucho's resigned his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee (his resignation was not accepted, however, and he later returned to his post).  

The tax plan the Governor signed into law eliminated a 3-tiered tax system and replaced it with a flat income tax rate of 5.8% for 2014, and 5.75% for 2015. The corporate tax rate was reduced from 6.9% to 6% for 2014, 5% for 2015 and if revenue triggers are met, 3% for 2017. The loss in revenue estimated at $650 million annually would be offset by expanding the sales tax and eliminating various personal exemptions including the Earned Income Tax Credit. 

Although this did not go as far as Senator Rucho had wanted, it does represent a radical change to North Carolina's tax system. 

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Rev. Barber's most compelling 7 minutes

This is an excerpt from Rev. Dr. William Barber's speech at Binkley Baptist Church in Durham, NC on June 30, 2013 — four days after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of The Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Our web series did not release this footage until now because this event was likely to be included in our upcoming feature length documentary. But this speech, out of many that we have filmed, best encapsulates Rev. Barber's religious and moral convictions.

After filming a speech Rev. Barber gave in Virginia, I wrote about a topic I had ignored for many years, religion:

There is beauty in today's movement to reclaim Christianity from the talons of oligarchy and oppression.

Yesterday I spent most of the day in a church where the man you see here gave a sermon in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Afterwards, another pastor sang a song that went "They will know we are Christian by our love." I was surprised to realize that those words actually made sense, and even resonated with me for the first time.

Truth be told, I am not a believer in this religion or any religion, but it is a blessing for me, I must admit, to at last be able to look upon the Christian faith with deep respect and warm regard.

It's such a huge part of American history — those who have fought and are fighting to protect its integrity are doing a service not just to their faith but to their country.

A Story of America team, including Annabel Park and me, will be documenting the Moral March on Raleigh on Sat. Feb. 8, 2013, at which Rev. Barber is traditionally the keynote speaker.

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