Just in time to distract from the 24 hour Russia-all-the-time news cycle is President Trump’s newly announced Presidential Commission on Election Integrity, an entity headed by Vice President Mike Pence that will supposedly focus on voter fraud and suppression.
This effort might seem like an inartful attempt to lend credibility to the president’s disproven claims of massive voter fraud in a 2016 presidential election that he won, but its purpose and impact will likely be more pernicious.
Given the GOP’s irresponsible history of engaging in voter suppression, the Commission’s aim could be an attempt to minimize the potential for Democratic gains in the 2018 and 2020 elections by reducing the influence of young people and communities of color.It’s presumed function will be to shine an amplifying spotlight on rare, outlier examples of voter fraud in an attempt to make them seem widespread so that GOP officials in states across the country will have cover as they deny voting rights to Americans who are least likely to cast their ballot for Republicans.
I know this playbook because I’ve lived it.
President Trump may have only recently learned about Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, but I am a graduate of Prairie View A&M University, a historically black land grant college founded on the grounds of a former slave plantation 49 miles northwest of Houston, Texas.
Prairie View was most recently in the national news when my fellow alumna the late Sandra Bland met her fatal end in a Waller County jail after being taken into custody for presumably failing to signal a lane change while driving her car just off the campus grounds.
However, the school’s pivotal role in a 1979 Supreme Court decision that gave students the right-to-vote where they attend school is its important but less well-known claim to fame.
That Supreme Court decision should have been the final arbiter of the matter but Prairie View students — black kids attending a black university smack dab in the middle of a county and state where White conservatives are hell bent on maintaining power — have been under assault for their attempts to exercise their legitimate and constitutionally-protected right to vote ever since.
My junior year at Prairie View was memorably punctuated in 1992 by the case of the “Prairie View 19” — fellow students who cast their ballot in a local election only to be arrested, booked and indicted by Waller County officials who claimed that they voted fraudulently.
I remember feeling a mixture of anger and sadness when this occurred; aggrieved that despite many decades since adoption of the 15th and 19th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and passage of the Voting Rights Act our rights as African Americans were still called into question by white conservatives who wanted the benefit of counting our bodies in the county’s census while limiting our ability to exert any modicum of political power.
Indignant and wanting justice, hundreds of us marched the seven miles from our campus to the Waller County Courthouse to protest the students’ mistreatment and demand their records be expunged. We got some measure of satisfaction when officials agreed to drop the charges. However, my satisfaction was relatively short lived.
In 2004, I was working in Washington D.C. as a vice president at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation when I learned the Waller County District Attorney Oliver Kitzman was challenging Prairie View students’ right-to-vote because he didn’t consider them residents of the county — a clear violation of the 1979 Supreme Court ruling and a continuation of the persistent pattern of voter intimidation and harassment to which PV students had been subjected.
I asked the Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus at the time, Rep Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) to step in (full disclosure: he later became my spouse) and he, along with leaders like Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and State Senator Rodney Ellis—got George W. Bush’s Department of Justice to launch an investigation.
Feeling the heat, the Waller County D.A. dropped his opposition soon thereafter. Hundreds of students marched to the county courthouse for their constitutional right to vote in 2004 just as we did in 1992.
Two federal lawsuits were also launched—one challenging the residency requirement and the other challenging the decision of Waller County officials to shorten the early voting period on the campus.
In 2008, more than 1,000 students marched again when Waller County officials—this time citing budget concerns, reduced the number of early voting locations from seven to one—placing the only voting location at the Waller County Courthouse seven miles away from campus—a major voting obstacle for many students without cars.
George W. Bush’s Justice Department stepped in again to demand the County add three polling places to better accommodate students.
In 2013, not long after a conservative-led Supreme Court gutted key provisions in the Voting Rights Act, Prairie View’s student leaders were once again asking county officials to put a polling place on campus.
But this time, with Texas’ newly enacted Voter ID law in effect—a law a federal judge recently ruled was enacted with the explicit intent to discriminate against African Americans and Latinos—they were operating in a climate even more hostile to minority and student voter participation.
Republicans argue that they have a duty to combat voter fraud even though there is sparse evidence that it exists. However, there is plenty of evidence--as the Prairie View example and others like it demonstrate — that racially motivated voter suppression is one of the GOP’s real goals and that they consistently rely on it to artificially maintain power.
I have no illusions that Donald Trump’s Department of Justice, led by Jefferson Beauregard Sessions — a man who, like Trump, has a history of racial discrimination — would ever step in to protect the voting rights of Prairie View students in this political climate.
On the contrary, I have every expectation that Trump, Sessions, Pence, and the other ultra-right cronies they bring in to help do their bidding will do everything in their power to further erode the rights of African Americans, students, Latinos, and anyone else they perceive of as standing in their way.
For today’s GOP members—who have more power than any time in recent history and who make Bush-era Republicans seem quaint by comparison—only operate by one standard: the principle of maximum political advantage. Under this calculation, democracy, the Constitution, integrity, voting rights, and human rights are all damned.
Maya Rockeymoore is a political scientist, author, speaker, policy analyst, and social entrepreneur. She is President and CEO of Global Policy Solutions LLC, a social change strategy firm, and President of the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a 501c3 dedicated to driving society toward inclusion.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.