CIRCLE the first, first letter of the alphabet in this line. Now write the word ‘noise’ backwards and place a dot over what would be its second letter should it have been written forward.
Done? Now draw a figure that is square in shape. Divide it in half by drawing a straight line from its northeast corner to its southwest corner, and then divide it once more by drawing a broken line from the middle of its western side to the middle of its eastern side. Once you’re done write every other word in this first line and print every third word in the same line (original type smaller and first line ended at comma) but capitalise the fifth word that you write.
You have 10 minutes to answer these and the 26 other questions, you can’t ask for extra time and you can’t ask the instructor to explain what these questions even mean. You can’t use the internet because you’re giving this test while being a black American in the US state of Louisiana in the year 1964. Oh and if you get any of these wrong, you’ve failed and won’t be able to vote.
This test was only one of the many techniques used to prevent black Americans from voting once they had acquired the legal right to do so after the civil war. After all, if black Americans could vote then they would likely vote out the good old boys (all white, all politically connected) who had a stranglehold on the levers of power. And since one couldn’t exactly bar them from voting outright, one could indeed make it virtually impossible for them to be able to register to vote. And when violence and intimidation failed, devices like the literacy test were made use of.
Then due to pressure from the civil rights movement, the voting rights act was passed by the US congress in 1965 which prohibited racial discrimination in voting by enacting a range of safeguards.
Fifty-one years later, civil rights groups are warning that the 2016 elections may see record levels of voter disenfranchisement. Recently, an appellate court struck down North Carolina’s restrictions on early voting and a law requiring voters to carry picture IDs, saying that these laws had been enacted “with racial discriminatory intent” and targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision”. Judge Diana Motz pointed out that “African Americans disproportionately used the first seven days of early voting”, which is why North Carolina’s Republican legislature eliminated the first week of voting.
Moreover, data showed that “counties with Sunday voting in 2014 were disproportionately black” and “disproportionately Democratic”, which is why North Carolina eliminated one Sunday as a voting day, as this is when black churches organise voters, even providing transport to those who cannot make it to the polling booths.
Many states have also recently passed voter ID laws purportedly meant to curb voter fraud but which in fact target African Americans who in many cases do not possess the required documents to ‘prove’ their citizenship or cannot afford the fees required to create those documents. In South Carolina for example, 178,000 voters (mostly non-white) don’t have any of the forms of photo ID the new law requires.
If you’re thinking getting an ID shouldn’t be such a big deal, consider that just last year Alabama tried to close 31 driver’s licence offices under the pretext of cost-cutting; it just so happens that most of these offices “were in rural areas with large African-American populations”.
Consider also that there is also no real evidence that the fraudulent voting the ID laws are meant to prevent even takes place.
Just a few years ago, these measures would have required ‘pre-clearance’ from the attorney general or federal judges, but that provision was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2013 in a decision rights activists called a “death knell”.
Even without that judgment there’s always the long-standing tactic of felony disenfranchisement; in many US states a person convicted of a felony offence is rendered ineligible to vote, and it just so happens that these laws have stripped one in every 13 black persons of their right to vote. That’s no surprise given that while African-Americans make up about 13pc of the US population they make up 40pc of the prison population.
There’s been a lot of talk of rigging in these elections, with Bernie Sanders’ supporters claiming the system was made to work against them and with Donald Trump now also warning that the upcoming elections will be rigged. They will be, but just not in the way one imagines.
For us in Pakistan, the purpose of this piece is not to engage in a bout of ‘see, it happens there as well’ but as a reminder that the price of liberty is constant vigilance and that democracy is a process, not a destination.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2016