Times have changed, but the disenfranchisement game is the same

Norfolk civil rights activist Evelyn Thomas Butts (1924-1993) helped secure voting rights for African Americans, when in 1963 she initiated a federal lawsuit asserting that Virginia’s poll tax was unconstitutional. (Virginia Department of Historic Resources)

State officials, a half-century after her momentous voting rights victory, have decided to honor activist Evelyn Butts in her hometown. The Virginia Board of Historic Resources recently announced a marker will rise in Norfolk, noting her importance in ending the poll tax in the commonwealth.

It’s not that Butts, who died in 1993, failed to receive her due previously, especially in Hampton Roads. She was a member of the NAACP, registered thousands of people to vote, and was a huge part of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, the case decided in 1966 by the U.S. Supreme Court. Butts’ case was combined with a similar one from Virginia. 

The justices voted 6-3 to end the use of poll taxes in state and local elections. (The 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution already prohibited poll taxes in federal elections, but five states – including good old Virginny – clung to the practice that disproportionately prohibited Black and poor people from voting.)  

As the commonwealth honors Butts, though, I’m getting a sense of “déjà vu, all over again” with the recent attacks on enfranchisement happening around the country. The efforts in some states to make it harder to vote — forcing people to risk contracting COVID-19 to cast a ballot — are reprehensible. 

You won’t be surprised to learn that Republicans are the party most associated with erecting barriers nowadays. I assume they’re taking cues from President Donald Trump, who earlier this year linked higher turnout to GOP defeats.

Think about that: Republicans concede that if as many people vote as possible, they’re toast. They want their voters to cast ballots, but not all voters. 

President Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee, for example, last week sued to block North Carolina officials from enforcing changes that could boost the number of ballots counted in the Tar Heel State, the Associated Press reported. The changes would give voters greater latitude in how they amend or deliver ballots to election officials. 

Why will there be a surge in absentee and mail-in voting this year? Because Trump and his administration did such a terrible job in quelling the pandemic as it reached U.S. shores. 

The president was more concerned about his re-election prospects than protecting the lives of Americans. Trump, for example, refused for months to be seen in public wearing a mask – a move many of his supporters emulated. The COVID-19 death toll now has risen to more than 204,000 in the United States, with no end in sight. 

GOP voting tactics aren’t limited to the pandemic, either. 

In Florida, Republicans have done all they could to prevent former felons from casting ballots – even after voters there approved an initiative in 2018 allowing most felons to do just that. Florida had been one of four states, including Virginia, as the toughest for felons to regain voting and other civil rights. The 2018 result overturned a Reconstruction-era law there and had wide, bipartisan support

Great. Allowing former felons to vote grants them more of a stake in their communities. It provides a pathway to better citizenship.

But not so fast, Florida Republican officials said. The Legislature passed a bill dictating that felons can’t register to vote until they’ve paid all fines and fees imposed as part of their sentences. Many of these felons are Black and Latino, though NPR reports the majority of felons with unpaid legal financial obligations in Florida are White. (Blacks overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.)

Activists there, including the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, then worked to help pay off those debts. Michael Bloomberg, the former Democratic presidential candidate, provided a big boost by raising more than $16 million for the effort. Musicians, sports stars and others helped out.

 The response by the Florida attorney general, who’s a Republican? “Investigate” Bloomberg’s participation on the thin premise that he’s “paying people to vote.” She made the claim even though the coalition has been working for more than a year and has some debts paid off.

And the GOP wonders why it has a hard time bringing people under its tent other than its stalwart base of Whites and Southerners.

These disenfranchisement efforts harken to a past that Evelyn Butts confronted. She fought at a time Jim Crow still ruled the South, and the vestiges of the state’s early 20th century Constitution – which sought to prevent Blacks from having a meaningful say in state policy – was king. The scheme included poll taxes and literacy tests.  

“Evelyn was at the forefront, was a champion of rights and she has just not in my opinion been recognized for the contributions she has made,” Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander told The Virginian-Pilot. Alexander wrote a dissertation last year about Butts. 

The Norfolk woman fought a racist structure that denied Blacks a meaningful role.

The names today may have changed, as well as the politics. Multiple attempts at disenfranchisement remain.

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