By Prof. Alemayehu G Mariam
It’s Not Just About an Election
In September, I expressed my support for President Barack Obama’s re-election. I told my readers that I enthusiastically supported candidate Obama in 2008 but was disappointed by his Administration’s policy in Ethiopia and Africa following his election:
Did President Obama deliver on the promises he made for Africa to promote good governance, democracy and human rights? Did he deliver on human rights in Ethiopia? No. Are Ethiopian Americans disappointed over the unfulfilled promises President Obama made in Accra, Ghana in 2009 and his Administration’s support for a dictatorship in Ethiopia? Yes. We remember when President Obama talked about the need to develop robust democratic institutions, uphold the rule of law and the necessity of maintaining open political space and protecting human rights in Africa. We all remember what he said: “Africa does not need strong men but strong institutions.” “Development depends on good governance.” “No nation will create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy.” Was he just saying these words or did he truly believe them?
I also argued that in all fairness there is plenty of blame to go around. I cautioned those of us who are quick to point an accusatory index finger at President Obama for what he has not done in Ethiopia and Africa to beware that three fingers are pointing directly at them.
Truth be told, what the President has done or not done to promote good governance, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia is no different than what we, the vast majority of Ethiopian Americans, have done or not done to promote the same values in Ethiopia. That is the painful truth we must face. The President’s actions or lack of actions mirror our own. Just like the President, we profess our belief in democracy, good governance and human rights in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa. But we have also failed to put our values in action. President Obama was constrained in his actions by factors of U.S. national security and national interest. We were constrained by factors of personal interest and personal security…
But there are other hard questions we should ask ourselves: What did we do to bring pressure on the Obama Administration to promote human rights, good governance and democracy in Africa over the past 4 years? Did we organize to have our voices heard by the Administration? Did we exercise our constitutional rights to hold the Administration accountable?
But I also gave President Obama high marks for many accomplishments over the past four years. Under his watch, over 5 million private sector jobs were created. The U.S. auto industry came roaring back even though some had urged, “Let Detroit go bankrupt!”. President Obama put his presidency on the line by spending all of his political capital in enacting the Affordable Health Care Act which offered health insurance to some 40 million Americans who had none. He established a Consumer Financial and Protection Bureau to oversee crooked financial institutions who had been ripping off consumers for years. He signed a law that secured the rights of women to equal pay for equal work. President Obama ended the war in Iraq. He has promised to end the war in Afghanistan in 2014. He has pursued Al Qaeda relentlessly and ended the criminal career of the most infamous terrorist in a risky military operation, which had it failed, could have doomed his presidency. Last week, Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey described President Obama’s response to “Hurricane Sandy’s” devastation of the east coast of the United States as “outstanding” and his Administration’s handling of the relief operation as “excellent”.
President Obama has proven himself to be a resolute commander in chief and a president open, ready, willing and able to engage in bipartisanship, collaboration and cooperation to get the nation’s business done. But the road he has travelled over the past 4 years has been a hard one. He has faced stiff opposition at every turn. He has been obstructed, blocked, thwarted, vilified and demonized by those who loath him personally than disagree with his policies. The top leader of the Republicans in the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell, vowed, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president. That’s my single most important political goal, along with every active Republican in the country.” President Obama knows his work is not finished and he has a lot more to do in improving the economy. He needs another term to complete his work. He needs the support and vote of every Ethiopian American.
It is Really About the Right to Vote in America
I write this column not so much to reiterate my support for President Obama but to underscore the enormous importance of the right to vote in America. Perhaps no one knew the importance of the right to vote than the hundreds of our brothers and sisters who were mowed down in cold blood by by troops loyal to the ruling regime in Ethiopia in 2005, and the tens of thousands who were imprisoned for peacefully protesting their stolen votes. While I would urge Ethiopian Americans to vote for President Obama, I believe it is far more important for them to exercise their right to vote for the candidate and issues of their choice.
Those who are not students of American politics and constitutional law may not be aware of the history of struggle and the untold sacrifices and and the high price paid in lost lives to secure, protect and defend this precious of all rights. When the American republic was forged in 1787, only white male property owners had the right to vote. When the first census was taken in 1790, there were 3,893,635 persons in the thirteen colonies and the four other districts and territories which later became states. There were 807,094 free white males, of which 10-16 percent met the property requirement to have the right to vote! The 1,541,263 free white females did not have the right to vote. The 694,280 “persons” (slaves) did not have the right to vote. The 791,850 free white males did not have the right to vote.
The property requirement for the right to vote was gradually dropped; and by 1850 the vast majority of white males could vote without significant obstacles. But some states sought to exclude and suppress the voting rights of disfavored groups. Between 1855-57, Connecticut and Massachusetts adopted a “literacy test” (a test of one’s ability to read and write) to discriminate against Irish-Catholic immigrants. After the American Civil War ended in 1865 and slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Congressional enactment of various civil rights laws, the former slaves formally gained the right to vote with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
But the states were not prepared to allow the former slaves to become their political equals by exercising their ultimate citizenship right. Beginning with Florida in 1889, ten states in southern United States adopted poll taxes (in order to vote, a citizen has to pay a poll tax) to keep African Americans from voting. Large numbers of impoverished African Americans could not afford to pay the poll taxes and were disenfran- chised by this requirement. For decades, many southern states devised various means to keep African Americans from voting. Some used “white primaries” (political parties excluding African Americans from party membership and closing the primaries to everyone except party members). Others complicated the voter registration process by requiring frequent re-registration, long terms of residence in a district before voting, registration at inconvenient times such the planting season, providing inaccurate and misleading information about voting dates, etc. Still others used “gerrymandering” (creating electoral districts by manipulating geographic boundaries to dilute the electoral strength of minority groups and create protected districts) to deny African Americans representatives of their own choosing. Electoral fraud was rampant in the states which sought to restrict African American electoral participation. Ballot box stuffing, throwing out votes for disfavored candidates, deliberately miscounting votes, changing votes from one candidate to another were common. Violence, threats and intimidation of African Americans were also commonly used to keep African Americans from voting despite federal laws against such criminal acts.
Women were not considered worthy of voting rights until 1920 when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified guaranteeing women’s suffrage. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Native Americans did not acquire full citizenship rights including the right to vote in federal elections until Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924.
Though many of the laws and practices aimed at preventing African Americans from voting were invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1950s and 1960s, it was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (and its expansion in 1970, 1975, and 1982) that enabled African Americans to finally and effectively exercise their right to vote. This law bans racial discrimination in voting and outlaws barriers to voting such as literacy tests. Most importantly, it requires certain state and local governments to “preclear” proposed changes in voting or election procedures with either the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It also requires that certain state and local jurisdictions provide assistance in languages other than English to voters who are not literate or fluent in English, in addition to granting authority to the U.S. Attorney General to send federal examiners and observers to monitor elections.
Deja Vu 2012: Voter Suppression or Protection of Electoral Integrity?
In the last few years, we have seen a spate of new state laws proposed and enacted to presumably strengthen the integrity of the electoral system. Some of these laws require “photo IDs” and proof of citizenship to register or vote. Other state laws aim to restrict voter registration drives, abolish election day registration, reduce the number of early voting periods and limit absentee voting opportunities. Still other states have sought to make it more difficult for people who move to stay registered and vote and prevent citizens with past criminal convictions from voting. Anonymous private groups have put up billboards and sent out flyers to intimidate, confuse and mislead potential voters, particularly those in the minority communities.
These laws appear to be benign and reasonable on their faces. There is little that is objectionable about requiring some form of official photo identification at the polls. It is customary in many countries to show identification for voters to cast a ballot. But despite lofty claims of protecting the integrity and prevention of fraud, the real reason behind these laws appears to be voter suppression. In a recent court case in Pennsylvania, the State of Pennsylvania admitted in a court stipulation that in passing its voter ID law, the state had no evidence of voter fraud. None! Indiana passed a voter ID law in 2005 even though there was no evidence of a documented or prosecuted case of voter impersonation fraud. Five voter impersonation complaints were filed in Texas in 2008 and 2010 out of some 13 million ballots cast. All of these laws are sponsored and were enacted by Republican state legislators and governors. In five states, Democratic governors vetoed ID laws passed by Republican legislatures. Such laws raise eyebrows in light of the ferocious declaration of the Republican minority leader of the U.S. Senate Mitch McConnell, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president. That’s my single most important political goal, along with every active Republican in the country.”
Truth be told, these photo ID laws seem to be reminiscent of the old practices of voter suppression using literacy tests, poll taxes and the like. With new waves of immigration and diversity in the the electoral population, some may find the demographic trends alarming and threatening to their political power and dominance. Millions are expected to be disproportionately affected by these laws including African Americans, Hispanic and other ethnic voters, the young and elderly and mostly democratic voters. It is not clear how these laws will affect the 2012 presidential elections which are said to be too close to call. But it is clear that there is a looming, imminetn and ominous threat to the right to vote which was gained through two centuries of blood, sweat and tears of African Americans, women and others.
EVERY VOTE REALLY COUNTS!
In the 2000 Presidential Election, Al Gore won the popular vote by 50,999,897 to Bush’s 50,456,002 (or by 543,895 [0.5%]). Bush won Florida 2,912,790 to Gore’s 2,912,253 (by 537 votes!) and got that state’s 25 electoral votes winning the Electoral College by 271-266. It is not difficult to imagine that in a close election such as the current presidential election, every single, solitary vote really counts.
In Northern Virginia, Florida, Ohio and Colorado, there are tens of thousands of Ethiopian Americans eligible to vote. Though I would be very pleased and appreciative if they voted for President Obama, I would be equally happy if they exercised their right to vote for whomever they choose. If the idea of one party winning 99.6 percent of the votes in Ethiopia offends any Ethiopian American, s/he should make sure his/her one vote counts in America!