People remember 1929 as the year of the stock-market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, the global economic disaster which remains the only one in history that dwarfs the one in which we now find ourselves. It was also the year Martin Luther King Jr. was born, who wouldn’t live to see 40 years. And it was the year that Langston Hughes graduated from Lincoln University, outside Philadelphia.
Hughes, the grandson of abolitionists and voting-rights activists, was an African-American writer. His poem “A Dream Deferred” begins:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?”
Hughes left Lincoln University, one of the 105 historically black colleges and universities in the U.S., and spent the rest of his life campaigning for civil and human rights. He died in 1967, two years after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Almost 80 years after his graduation, Lincoln students eagerly awaited the opportunity to cast their vote, many no doubt for the first major-party African-American candidate for president, Barack Obama. For years, the Chester County Board of Elections and Department of Voter Services had accommodated the students and community by establishing a convenient polling place on campus, in the gymnasium. In 2008, however, it was moved to a community center, described by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania as “more than a mile from the Lincoln University campus on a winding country road and is virtually inaccessible for students without a car.” Many waited up to seven hours, at times in the rain, to vote. Some who wanted to vote never got to.
The ACLU and several other groups sued on behalf of students and community members, alleging “inconvenient and inadequate polling facilities.” The Board of Elections settled, and the polling will occur again on campus.
The county bureaucrat who engineered the 2008 voting debacle, Carol Aichele, no longer has that job. Not because she was fired, though.
Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, Tom Corbett, appointed her to serve as the secretary of the commonwealth. She now oversees all elections in the state of Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania has long been considered a swing state, even though it has gone to the Democratic presidential candidate in every election since 1992. Following the 2010 Republican sweep, giving the GOP control over many state legislatures and governorships, the nation has seen a wave of new laws that make it harder to vote. In Pennsylvania, for example, there is a new law imposing strict requirements that people show photo identification in order to vote.
While publicly touted as a law intended to inhibit voter impersonation at the polls, its real intent was explained in a rare moment of candor by Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, who, when going over a checklist of legislative accomplishments, bragged, “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: Done.”
New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice and others sued Pennsylvania to block the law, and were recently handed a defeat in state court. Nicole Austin-Hillery, director and counsel of the Brennan Center’s Washington, D.C., office, told me that “the state government stipulated that they have no evidence of in-person voter fraud ever having occurred in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, this court still says that it believes that it is OK for the state to implement a measure that is meant to protect the state against voter fraud. ... It basically ensures that many voters in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will have a very difficult, if not to impossible, time voting.” Estimates put the number of Pennsylvania voters who might be disenfranchised as more than 750,000.
It’s not just Pennsylvania. In Ohio, the Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, has instructed the state’s 88 counties not to allow early voting on weekends, a voter enfranchisement strategy that has been popular with African-American and poorer voters, who tend to vote Democratic. In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott has prevailed against the U.S. Justice Department as he continues a controversial purge of the voter rolls. In Texas, a gun license is an acceptable form of ID, but student ID cards are not. The Brennan Center is tracking laws recently passed or on the way in 25 states, including many key swing states, all which will have the result of making it harder for people to vote.
Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred” ends:
“Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.