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Sorting out the truth in politics

Do voter laws bring back Jim Crow?

The statement

"The Republicans … want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws and literally — and very transparently — block access to the polls to voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates."

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democratic National Committee chairwoman

Republicans in Florida and across the country are pushing tighter voter laws ahead of the 2012 presidential election that they say will better combat fraud.

But when do those additional restrictions go too far?

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the new Democratic National Committee chairwoman and a congresswoman from South Florida, raised the point recently with a powerful analogy.

"The Republicans … want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws and literally — and very transparently — block access to the polls to voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates," she told Roland Martin, an African-American political commentator for CNN and the host of a weekly public affairs show on the TV One cable network.

The reference to Jim Crow — the primary tool that supported segregation and white supremacy in the South between the 1880s and the 1960s — got her in trouble from Republicans who said her comments suggested the GOP was racist.

As a result, she took the comparison back.

"Jim Crow was the wrong analogy to use," she said.

For us at PolitiFact, that would normally be the end of it.

But we decided to make an exception because: (1) election laws figure to be prominent over the next year and; (2) because some people don't think Wasserman Schultz was altogether wrong.

• • •

There's a case to be made for arguing that the current crop of voter laws are similar to Jim Crow laws.

• Voting restrictions were the linchpin of Jim Crow. Preventing blacks from voting enabled the subsequent imposition of other segregationist laws. "Exclusion from the franchise was the centerpiece of the system that was put in place in the late 19th century," said Robert Korstad, a Duke University historian.

• Like Jim Crow laws, the new laws are likely to diminish the voter pool. Though the extent is uncertain, most experts agree that some people who would otherwise want to vote will be disenfranchised. And many agree that minorities will be hit disproportionately.

"Historians of the South use the term 'Jim Crow laws' to mean discouraging voting in a way that impacts minority voters," said Glenda Gilmore, a Yale University historian. "So, I think that she was exactly right in her use of the phrase."

• Allegations of fraud were also used to support the initial imposition of Jim Crow voting laws. "Like today's GOP, turn-of-the-century Southern Democrats argued that poll taxes and literacy tests would reduce fraud at the polls," said Jane Dailey, a University of Chicago historian.

• Even laws that are superficially race-neutral can have serious effects on minorities. Many of the Jim Crow voting laws were not explicitly written to favor white voters over black voters, even though they had that practical effect.

"There was nothing, on the surface, that made those laws antiblack. It was how they were enforced that became critical," said William H. Chafe, a Duke University historian. "The laws provided political officials with the tools to discriminate against whom they wished."

• • •

Then there's a case for arguing the current laws are unlike Jim Crow.

• Jim Crow laws had much higher rates of disenfranchisement. Jim Crow laws disenfranchised all or virtually all of the potential black voters in Southern states. Not even critics suggest that will happen today with voter ID laws.

"Black voter participation, which in some places had been 90 percent of eligible male voters in the late 1860s and early 1870s, was cut to essentially zero by early decades of 20th century," said Michael J. Klarman, a professor at Harvard Law School. "What Republicans are doing now … is trivial by comparison. They are making it marginally harder for poor people, disproportionately minority, to vote."

• It's much easier for minorities to abide by a voter ID law than a Jim Crow law. Getting an identification card may be a hassle, but it's not as challenging as learning how to read.

Thomas Adams Upchurch, a historian at East Georgia College, said that "people find the money to afford those things that are important to them, and they make a way to do those things that they value. If people want to vote, they should have a photo ID."

• Jim Crow was about much more than just voter disenfranchisement. While laws to restrict voting were an important part of the system of Jim Crow, they were just one part, said James C. Cobb, a University of Georgia historian and author of several books on the South. Legalized discrimination in the South ran the gamut from separate hotels and buses to unequal schools to separate water fountains.

• Jim Crow was unadulterated racism. Voter ID laws are not.

"Jim Crow laws were intended to hurt African-Americans and make it difficult for them to achieve any political strength," said Richard Hasen, an election law specialist at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "In contrast, the motives behind the wave of Republican-led voter identification laws and other restrictive voting laws are less clear. At their worst, the laws seem to be motivated to hurt Democrats, including poor and minority voters who tend to vote Democratic," which would make it "partisan, not racial, discrimination."

• • •

Wasserman Schultz isn't the only one to make the Jim Crow comparison. Editorials in the New York Times, Miami Herald, Memphis Commercial Appeal and Amarillo Globe News have all referenced Jim Crow laws in this context, as have a smattering of politicians.

But her decision to retract her use of the phrase was the right one. Even if the ultimate effect of these laws is to decrease voter turnout — and even if the need to prevent voter fraud is not as dire as the laws' supporters contend — Wasserman Schultz's decision to compare the new crop of laws to Jim Crow went too far.

Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of the new laws, but they would not return the United States to Jim Crow. Saying so offers more heat than light.

And that's why PolitiFact rated her claim False.

Do voter laws bring back Jim Crow? 06/20/11 [Last modified: Monday, June 20, 2011 11:05am]
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