Voting rights protest

Hundreds rallied outside the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2013 in support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In June 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the high court struck down a key provision of the act. PHOTO COURTESY OF BING IMAGES  

We now know that the reaction of Gov. Walker’s allies to a close election in Wisconsin was an urgent discussion about how to gin up talk of “widespread election fraud” — even though there was no evidence of fraud.

The Guardian newspaper recently revealed emails between business and political backers of the governor, who were peddling what The New York Times referred to as “the voter fraud myth.”

“Behind closed doors, some Republicans freely admit that stoking false fears of electoral fraud is part of their political strategy,” explained The Times. “In a recently disclosed email from 2011, a Republican lobbyist in Wisconsin wrote to colleagues about a very close election for a seat on the State Supreme Court. 'Do we need to start messaging "widespread reports of election fraud" so we are positively set up for the recount regardless of the final number?’ he wrote. ‘I obviously think we should.’”

False claims of “voter fraud” are an affront to the memory of Wisconsinites like former Sen. Gaylord Nelson and former Congressman Robert Kastenmeier, who in the 1960s fought to pass the Voting Rights Act, and to the memory of former Gov. Patrick Lucey, who implemented reforms that made it possible to register and cast a ballot on election day.

The Wisconsin commitment to voting rights, and to making voting easy for all citizens, has always been rooted in a faith that high-turnout elections are necessary to establish governance that reflects the will of the people — as opposed to the dictates of economic and political elites. It was this faith that inspired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to declare almost 60 years ago: “Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights. … Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of good will and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a ‘Southern Manifesto’ because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice.”

Ari Berman chose "Give Us the Ballot" as the title of his masterful study of the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the contemporary struggle to maintain protections for voters and robust democracy. Hailed by Congressman John Lewis as a book that “should become a primer for every American,” "Give Us the Ballot" has been described by the Chicago Tribune as a book that “removes the facade of intellectual honesty — where voting-rights opponents even bothered to make an argument — and lays bare the many, many ways to game the outcome of an election.”

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Ari has raised the alarm about the assault on voting rights in Wisconsin and other states. And he’ll be in Madison’s Goodman Community Center, 149 Waubesa St. on Madison's east side, at 7 p.m. Tuesday for a free event cosponsored by the Center for Media and Democracy and the Wisconsin Book Festival, as well as Common Cause, One Wisconsin Institute, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and The Madison Institute. I’ll join Ari and voting rights activists from across Wisconsin to discuss what must be done to give the ballot to all Wisconsinites!

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times