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John Nichols: Walker and Kochs vs. voting

John Nichols: Walker and Kochs vs. voting

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Koch Industries sign

Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch finally got their way in 2011. For decades they funded the American Legislative Exchange Council, the collaboration between multinational corporations and conservative state legislators, and the project finally began to yield the intended result.

For the first time in decades, the United States saw a steady dismantling of the laws, regulations, programs and practices put in place to make real the promise of American democracy.

That is why, on Saturday, civil rights groups and their allies rallied outside the New York headquarters of the Koch brothers to begin a march to the United Nations, where they called for the renewal of voting rights in America.

For the Koch brothers and their kind, less democracy is better. They spend millions to help elect the likes of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who famously took a call from someone he thought was David Koch during last winter’s wrangle over labor rights. And ALEC has made it clear, through its ambitious Public Safety and Elections Task Force, that while it wants to dismantle any barriers to corporate cash and billionaire bucks influencing elections, it wants very much to erect barriers to the primary tool that ordinary Americans have to influence the politics and the government of the nation: voting.

That crude calculus, usually cloaked in back-room deal-making, came into full view in 2011.

Across the country, and to a greater extent than at any time since the last days of Southern resistance to desegregation, voting rights were being systematically diminished rather than expanded.

ALEC has been organizing and promoting the assault, encouraging its legislative minions to enact rigid voter ID laws and to carry out related attacks on voting rights in more than three dozen states.

With their requirements that the millions of Americans who lack a driver’s license and other forms of official paperwork go out and obtain identification cards in order to cast ballots, the voter ID push put in place new variations on an old evil: the poll tax.

“We are in the midst of the greatest coordinated legislative attack on voting rights since the dawn of Jim Crow,” says NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. “Voter ID laws are nothing but reincarnated poll taxes and literacy tests, and ex-felon voting bans serve the same purpose today as when they were created in the wake of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing ex-slaves the vote — suppressing voting numbers among people of color.”

Voter ID laws represent only the beginning of the assault on voter rights by conservative governors and legislators. Measures put into effect in some states have included ending same-day voter registration, reducing the number of days for early voting, placing new restrictions on voting by students at colleges and technical schools, and reducing the number of polling places.

“For nearly a century, there were Jim Crow laws in place that discouraged people of color from voting,” explains Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights. “Today, there are different laws, but the objective is the same — to prevent millions from exercising their right to vote.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times, Wisconsin’s progressive daily online news source, where his column appears regularly. jnichols@madison.com

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