True or Screw the Vote?: Zeno's Law on Preisseless Voting in Ohio

Benjamin G. Davis, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law

Many of you have heard about:

“…. when Doug Preisse, the influential Republican Party chairman of Franklin County, which includes the state capital, Columbus, was quoted in The Columbus Dispatch newspaper as saying, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter turnout machine.””

(http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/23/us/politics/ohio-early-voting-battle-flares-after-racial-comment-by-republican-official.html?_r=2)

Some of you may have heard about a group called TruetheVote.com which was the subject of a report on The Rachel Maddow Show on August 23, 2012, to wit:

(Self-appointed ‘poll watchers’ raise concerns about intimidation

Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, talks with Rachel Maddow about the self-appointed, political operative “poll police” group True The Vote, what constitutes voter intimidation and what American voters should do if they feel intimidated at a polling place.

 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/vp/48773662#48773662)

Having been a poll watcher in 2004 and 2008 and planning, if I am wanted, to be a poll watcher in 2012, I became curious about this group and went to their website at truethevote.com. There I learned that tomorrow, August 25th, 2012, True the Vote is having a training session all day in Worthington, Ohio near Columbus in Franklin County at which one can learn how to true the vote.  Among the speakers scheduled are Ken Blackwell, former Secretary of State well remembered for the disastrous 2004 election management (more on that below) and the current Secretary of State John Husted who has been called out for first voting to break ties in Democratic districts so as to restrict longer hours, attempting to end weekend voting and in  particular on the weekend before the Presidential election this year, and late this week removing two Democratic members of the Franklin County election “deciders” for daring to insist on allowing voters to vote over the weekend even after Husted tried to set a uniform policy that did not address weekend voting. Whew!

Having been a poll watcher in 2004 and 2008 and having been trained in trying to see if any shenanigans are being done to suppress the vote and after listening to Rachel Maddow’s description of True the Vote techniques, I realized that I had not had training of the kind that appears to be the True the Vote methods.  So, I have decided to pay my $20 and spend all day tomorrow, Saturday down in Worthington, Ohio at this meeting learning about what these True the Vote folks teach.  I hope to also say something to Ken Blackwell and to John Husted if we are allowed to ask questions.

My spider sense tingles right now here in Ohio about all the shenanigans going on about voting.  My personal view is that voting is a right and the hierarchy should do everything to allow every person with that right to vote.  The goal is to explain and make easy voting, not create obstacles.  It has always moved me to watch people vote, there is something so dignified about that act of a citizen.  I think of all the efforts of so many to secure the franchise for the disenfranchised in this country and so voting has great meaning to me.  And, as Ohio is THE swing state, voting in Ohio is important to me.  And, as Toledo is the swingingest part of the swing state, Toledo voting rights are really important to me.

And, since I live on Alvin Street in Toledo, I am really concerned about the vote of my friends Zeno and Mary White and myself.  Zeno and I sit on his porch often and look at the events of the day.  The other night I asked Zeno if it would be okay for me to do a commentary on Preiss and these other events referring to him and his great-uncle and he allows me to share this.

Zeno’s great-uncle is the late Congressman George H. White.  George White was the last black Congressman from the South after Reconstruction who left the House of Representatives in 1901.  Congressman White made a remarkable address as he left the House of Representatives (http://www.blackpast.org/?q=1901-george-h-whites-farewell-address-congress) which I hope readers will click on and read.  He describes all the machinations and shenanigans that the political leaders of the time did in order to disenfranchise and intimidate black voters so that he would not have a chance of being reelected.   With his departure, as noted at the link, he was bringing to a close a 32 year period in which nearly 40 Southern Blacks had served in the Congress. After George White’s departure, it would be nearly another 27 years before another Negro was in Congress – this time from Chicago

One particular section stayed with me:

“In the town where this young gentleman was born, at the general election last August for…state and county officers, Scotland Neck had a registered white vote of 395, most of whom…were Democrats, and a registered colored vote of 534, virtually…all of whom were Republicans, and so voted. When the count was announced, however, there were 831 Democrats to 75 Republicans; but in the town of Halifax, same county, the result was much more pronounced. In that town the registered Republican vote was 345, and the total registered vote of the township was 539, but when the count was announced it stood 990 Democrats to 41 Republicans, or 492 more Democratic votes counted than were registered votes in the township. Comment here is unnecessary…”

George White in 1901 had seen shenanigans to disenfranchise blacks there in North Carolina at that time done by the Democrats.

George White’s experience and the Rachel Maddow report made me think about the challenging of voters in general.  Rachel Maddow’s guest Wendy Weiser from the Brennan Center pointed out an 1868 Ohio law from which the voter challenge law of today is derived in Ohio.  As quoted in a brief of 2004 filed against then Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell about the 2004 election (http://moritzlaw.osu.edu/electionlaw/docs/Spencer/TRO.pdf), that 1868 Ohio law is described as follows:

“The current statute permitting challenges in the voting place traces its roots to a blatantly racist post civil war statute.  The Ohio legislature passed the Act of April 16, 1868 (65 Ohio L. 97) in order to “preserve the purity of elections.”  The 1868 Act permitted challenges in the polling place to a male voter’s race and required the voter to prove he did not have an “admixture of African blood.”  The voter’s race was challenged at the polls if he could  not answer these questions to the satisfaction of the election judges:”

(…)

“1) What is your age?

2) Where were you born?

3) Were your parents married….?

4) Had your parents, or either of them, had a visible and distinct admixture of African blood?

5) In the Community in which you live are you classified and recognized as a white or colored person, and do you associate with white or colored persons?

6) Are there schools for colored children in operation in the township….in which you live…?”

This statute was declared unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court in the late 1860’s, but the brief argues that it appears the roots of the Ohio statute authorizing polling place challengers were in de jure discrimination. Id.

Now if one looks at the animus of that Ohio legislature as to voting by people with African blood, being around people with African blood, and teaching children of African blood, it does make one think about racial animus having operated back in 1868 as a source for the attitudes that plagued that periods voting, housing, and education.  And so, this week, reading what Mr. Preisse said was truly priceless as it, at least for me, and now from the Republican side, echoed back to that animus – whether or not Mr. Preisse was conscious of this source code.  And in feeling that echo I do not feel I am being overly sensitive – just showing that just maybe there is really nothing new under the sun. 

And as I look back to 1868, and look back to George White’s farewell to Congress in 1901, think about the civil rights struggle, remember what I saw in 2004 happen at the polling place in the predominantly black neighborhood around Indiana Avenue here in Toledo that I wrote about at that time to the Voter Protection Organizations (there were things that were not right), and now to True the Vote, I see a long line that has had Democratic sources and Republican sources.

Now, Democrat and Republican, are just labels.  Underneath those labels are people, people like those in the Ohio legislature in 1868 (but also people in the Ohio Supreme Court striking down the “African blood” law), people that Congressman George White railed against (but also people who praised his words), people who did so much to complicate the vote in 2004 (but also people who worked tirelessly to preserve voter rights as polls closed hours late), and the True the Vote people I am going to see tomorrow. 

Yes, in a few short hours, I will find out which side the True the Vote people are on though initial impressions are not very reassuring.  If those meetings are what I suspect, what should I do if there are not many people with a shared vision like mine there?  My son has said he will come, which touched me greatly.  But will others also pay their $20 to show up and see what true the vote is about?

And, as I see myself going to this meeting, another story that Zeno told me came to mind.  He told me of his father telling the leader of the Ku Klux Klan in his area that when they did their rally, if they step with one foot on his land he would shoot them.  This was in the 30’s or 40’s.  And the Klan passed the message to not go on “Coon White’s” land.  He told me of a black man at the general store who acquiesced to use a spoon at the request of a white man to help that white man relieve his own constipation and the sniggering of the other whites standing around that general store.  Zeno told me of one of his  relatives walking into that store back in those days and saying that if they ask any of his family to do that, he would shoot them.  And walking out.

Zeno does not call me to seek violence, but to assure my dignity.  He calls me to say to all people who seek to vote – whatever one’s color – that if there are self-appointed challengers who seek to intimidate you, object and have the poll workers remove the miscreants.  If there are self-appointed challengers who follow one around as one votes, tell them “Move away” or “Poll worker, this man/woman is bothering me and please get him/her away.” It is vital that each man or woman understand that they must act with freedom of spirit  in doing this task.  To be free is to act free.

Prior to that voting day, every official who attempts to complicate the voting right of each individual should be called out for what he is – an enemy of democracy and the ordinary working man or woman.  He may be handsome and she may be beautiful speaking with dulcet and smooth sounding words that make so much sense, but their smoothness in misdirection should not delude us.  Voting is the time of the working person, the ones of the rough hewn hands, the ones we call the salt of the earth, the vast groups of terribly decent Americans of all colors and walks of life who do their duty by standing and choosing.  Those who have grown over these years and not retreated back to the ignominy of 1868 in false delusions of regaining power through a flawed effort to dominate.  Screw the retrograde!

When those who think they have power seek to use their money and influence to – surreptitiously or otherwise – pervert the voting process, let us all call them out.  Let us speak to their faces.  Let us sing songs and carry signs that say:

1868, 1901, 2004, WE ARE NOT GOING BACK TO THAT CRAP!”

Or maybe say, “GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY VOTE!”

Or maybe even stronger “BOW TO THE VOTER; DO NOT DEMEAN YOUR PUBLIC TRUST BUT REDEEM YOURSELF.”

Now those who seek to block voting will have their rationalizations.  One that I think will be there is James Madison’s famous “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”  They will say even without any particular animus toward their opponents that all is fair in love and war and reducing the other side’s votes is as old as America – after all only propertied white males had the vote back at the time of the Constitution.  But, let me say to those who do that rationalization or another one, “I am doing this for my family,” that they might remember that Madison did not think of all people’s ambition at the time he said those words.  He thought of only that group who were allowed to compete.  Through dint of effort over these many decades more have become included in those who are permitted ambition.  It is because there were enough who were dissatisfied with those allowed to be ambitious, that the potential space for more people to flourish was forced to expand.

So, as power only responds to power and being indifferent as to for whom anyone votes, let us determine to push forward to make sure the franchise is expanded in Ohio to reach everyone who is eligible and let them vote.  Let us make Ohio the easiest place to vote, the place that honors the common man and woman as they take upon themselves this important aspect of citizen’s sovereignty.

And to those who would pervert these processes, let them be damned to  some deep recess beyond the seventh circle of hell.  Whatever their riches, their poverty of spirit makes them those who do not uplift but seek to crush the common man and woman in their machinations.  And their willing accomplices in these vile acts, are mere minions and subalterns of the most craven sort  – not leaders, but mere impeders of American possibility.