Before she died six years ago, Rev. Cassandra Gould’s mother used to say that “everybody marched with Dr. King” but that she had been in Selma, Alabama, “before Dr. King got there.” As a 19-year-old from a nearby town, she would ask an older cousin to drive her to the city, where she registered voters, joined sit-ins, and marched. For the rest of her life, she carried a gash on her thigh, a reminder of the police officer who shot her on March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday,” the day that perhaps more than any other precipitated the passage of that year’s Voting Rights Act.
Gould and her siblings grew up faithful to their mother’s directive — “If you don’t do anything else, you vote” — but never experienced firsthand the ferocious racism of those days. Gould moved to St. Louis, Missouri — “Mississippi North,” as she only half-jokingly calls it — and became a reverend and activist. She quickly learned the subtle and insidious ways in which racism had survived and adapted in the aftermath of the civil rights era, but like many of her generation she remained relatively sheltered from racial violence.
Then, in August 2014, a few days after an unarmed black teenager was killed by a white police officer in nearby Ferguson, she found herself within feet of tanks, rows of police in riot gear, and the smell of tear gas. She wondered, “Is this what it was like for my mother?”
“Never in my life I thought I’d see something like that,” she told The Intercept during a recent interview. “That was the night that I thought, I am now living in my mother’s world, and why in the world am I living in that world when I thought that those who fought during that time fought so I wouldn’t have to?”
Something else she never thought she’d be doing in 2016 was fighting to preserve the right to vote. Yet that’s exactly what she and dozens of other black activists have undertaken across the country, some for the second time in their lives, after a 2013 Supreme Court decision gutted a major provision of the Voting Rights Act. The elimination of that provision, which required nine states and many other localities with a history of racial discrimination to secure federal approval before changing election laws and procedures, sparked a series of measures across the country effectively restricting access to the polls with a disproportionate impact, once again, on black voters.
In Missouri, that resulted in renewed efforts to pass a voter ID law so restrictive that in 2006 the state’s supreme court found it violated the state constitution — which, unlike the U.S. Constitution, includes an affirmative right to vote. But instead of shelving the bill as unconstitutional, legislators moved to change the constitution itself, making Missouri the only state in the country that’s attempting to rewrite its supreme law in order to restrict access to the polls.
On November 8, Missourians will head to the polls to elect the president and a host of statewide officials in a deeply divided state. But this time, they will also be asked — in language that some have described as confusing — whether they want to amend their constitution to open the door to stricter voting laws. If passed, Amendment Six would give a second chance to HB 1631, which was vetoed earlier this summer by Gov. Jay Nixon after passing both state House and Senate. The proposed law aims to limit the forms of ID accepted at the polls to valid Missouri or federal IDs with photos and expiration dates — excluding currently accepted documents like college IDs, driver’s licenses from other states, expired IDs, voter registration cards, and utility bills. Voters without the required ID could sign a sworn statement affirming their identity and recognizing that such ID is “the law of the land” or they could cast a provisional ballot, not valid until they prove their identity.
There are an estimated 220,000 registered voters in Missouri without a state ID, according to Secretary of State Jason Kander, and they are disproportionately African-American, elderly, disabled, and poor.
While the bill includes provisions requiring the state to cover the cost of the ID and any underlying documents necessary to get it, critics say it would pose an unreasonable and unnecessary burden on citizens who often don’t have the access to transportation or the means and time to chase paperwork from the DMV to the social security administration office or the division of vital records, even assuming the necessary documents are available. That quest can also be complicated by budget cuts and reduced operating hours: In Alabama, for instance, shortly after passing stricter photo ID requirements, state officials proceeded to close 30 DMV offices in mostly black counties — though most were later re-opened for one or two days a month.
Most commonly, obtaining a photo ID requires a certified birth certificate, which many black and elderly voters do not possess, especially if they were born in the South at a time when most African-Americans were not welcome in hospitals and gave birth at home, said Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney at the Advancement Project, who has led successful efforts to repeal North Carolina’s voter ID law and has fought Missouri’s version of that law for years. Obtaining post-dated birth certificates requires a half dozen other underlying documents, she noted, and any discrepancy in spelling or names can constitute a major roadblock, which especially affects women who changed their names through marriage or divorce, as well as minorities, mostly Latinos, with multiple first and last names.
Trying to obtain a photo ID without the right underlying documentation can be an “exercise in futility,” said Lieberman. “In a number of states, including Missouri, in order to get a copy of your birth certificate — get this — you have to present a photo ID!”
Ferguson Is Everywhere
In the summer of 2014, the Ferguson protests catapulted questions of institutional racism and inequality back into the national spotlight with a force not seen in decades, but as the movement reaffirming black lives sparked by the killing of Michael Brown expanded across the country and beyond policing issues, Missouri remained a hot spot as well as a state both symptomatic and foreboding of racial battles to come.
The state’s conservative politicians and residents responded to Ferguson by retreating into their entrenched rhetoric, while the street protests simmered down, leaving room for voter registration drives, packed town hall meetings, and long-disenfranchised black communities vigorously demanding a seat at the table in local politics. The state’s next battle will be fought at the voting booth, and this time, it will be about who will have access to it.
“It’s no coincidence,” said Lieberman, calling Missouri the “poster child for restrictive voting provisions.”
“What’s happening in Missouri is indicative of this struggle for racial justice and power across the country; it’s about race and it’s about power,” she said. “The reality of this country has been that we shut out communities of color, particularly African-Americans, and it’s no coincidence that just as that particular voting bloc is starting to see a surge in their ability to speak, you see measures precisely targeted at limiting the political voice of those particular communities.”
Missouri state Sen. Will Kraus, a Republican and one of the main proponents of photo ID requirements, denied that stricter voting measures are tied to black Missourians’ growing political power, saying that he and others have been trying to pass the bill for over a decade and blaming the Ferguson protests on Gov. Nixon’s “failure to lead.”
“I think that it’s the democratic governor’s fault, the climate that we’re in right now,” he told The Intercept. Kraus said the estimate that 220,000 Missourians lack photo IDs is “grossly exaggerated. … I’d be shocked if it’s 10,000.” He also dismissed as “talking points” the criticism from voting rights advocates that the bill would disproportionately affect black and poor residents and said that most people in Missouri, across party lines, “don’t understand why this is a big deal.”
“How do they live in today’s society without a photo ID? How do they cash a check?” he said. “I have friends that are African-Americans, and trust me that most of them have IDs.”
Kraus, who recently lost his party’s primary for secretary of state, insists that photo IDs are necessary. “One of the most important things we can do is protect and safeguard our election process, when there are people out there trying to change the outcome of the election by voter registration fraud,” he said. “Right now, all it takes to vote in Missouri is a utility bill. You can go and say, I’m Bob Schmidt. You have to register before that, but when you go in, you don’t have to show who you are.”
“We’ve had a couple situations,” he added, citing the case of two relatives of a state representative who admitting to illegally claiming a Kansas City address to vote for their nephew. In 2012, he said, one woman showed up at the polls to learn that someone had already voted for her. And he claimed that in April 2015, 27 people registered to vote from city-owned apartments he personally canvassed and saw were vacant.
But critics say that restricting access to the polls over fraud concerns is a solution in search of a problem, and that claims of large-scale voter fraud have been thoroughly debunked: It just doesn’t happen anywhere near the level proponents of voting restrictions claim. Nationwide, voter fraud is vanishingly rare. Most election irregularities happen at the administrative level and are due to election officials’ errors — something that won’t change with stricter voter ID laws. “It’s a proxy for racism and a proxy for passing laws that target particular populations with potential political power because you don’t like what they have to say,” said Lieberman. “It’s manipulating the system for political gain.”
“You can certainly understand why folks who are in power and who have benefited historically from society’s disparities in power would be running scared at the thought of a more robust and democratic electorate,” she added.
Freedom Summer ’16
Fifty-two years after the original Freedom Summer voter registration campaign in Mississippi, Gould and a number of other black activists held their own Freedom Summer ’16 campaign in Missouri, with the goal of educating voters about the threat posed by Amendment Six.
“As a daughter of the South, realizing that the same fight that my mother had more than 50 years ago is still my fight is sobering,” said Gould. “If we allow this to happen, then the writing is on the wall. It will only get worse; our constitutional rights will continue to get eroded.”
The challenge this summer has been to rally support against an amendment that even in Missouri remains relatively obscure to many, and to do so at a time when disillusion with the political system runs deep. “Many are not excited by the presidential election, and they say they plan to sit this one out,” said Gould. “I hate to say this, but even if you don’t vote for a president, show up at the polls and say … I’m not going to allow you to take that right.”
That can be a hard sell, as many working at the grassroots level in Missouri and beyond have learned. Jamala Rogers, an organizer with the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle, said her group is trying to encourage people to vote as only one way to exert power, and an admittedly limited one. “You put someone in office, and then they screw you, then you wait four years and remove them, and the next person screws you,” she told The Intercept. “We have got to come up with some different way of doing things.”
Like Gould, Rogers’s group is channeling civil rights-era organizing models, relying on churches and door knocking to mobilize people. While she warns against viewing the vote as a catch-all solution, she’s encouraging people to keep showing up at the polls, and this year to protect their very right to vote. Ferguson — where at the time of Michael Brown’s death black residents “were 70 percent of the population with no elected officials that looked like them”— made clear that voting alone would not change things, Rogers noted. But while protest, organizing, and other ways to build political power all matter, voting shouldn’t be dismissed, especially as it comes under threat.
“I believe many young people have a better sense of urgency than some in my generation, yet many are apathetic about voting,” said Gould. “But voting, particularly in this election, in Missouri, is an act of resistance.”