4 May 2018
Black Woman Jailed...for Voting
The right to vote is said to be sacred in the “land of the free,” a cure-all for every injustice visited upon working people and the downtrodden. Every time a rotten contract is crammed down the throats of a unionized workforce by the bosses; every time a black youth is shot dead in the streets by racist police; every time an immigrant child is torn from his mother’s arms by Homeland Security, working people are peddled the lie that they can change things at the ballot box. But the entire history of this country proves that, for the bourgeoisie, the franchise was never meant for everyone, and that goes double for black people. Nowhere is this more evident than in the “Great State of Texas.” To this day, the political fabric of Texas is shaped by the 19th-century conspiracy whose purpose was to expand black chattel slavery into the Southwest by robbing Mexico of millions of acres of its territory.
On March 28, a vindictive Texas state judge sentenced 43-year-old Crystal Mason, a black woman, to five years behind bars for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 presidential elections. That November, after her mother insisted that she drive in the rain to the polls, Mason voted in southern Tarrant County near Fort Worth. Mason had already been on federal supervised release for a year following the completion of a five-year prison term for a minor tax fraud conviction. According to Texas law, convicted felons are barred from voting until they have completed their sentences, including probation or parole. But Mason had never been told by anyone that she could not vote. She is out on bail and has filed a motion for a new trial. Drop all charges against Crystal Mason!
Mason’s provisional ballot was rejected and her vote never counted in the first place. In her appeal, her lawyer asserts that the state election statute is ambiguous with regard to federal supervised release, which differs substantially from parole. Mason says she may never vote again. Indeed, that is the point and the intended effect of her outrageous sentence, meant as a message to all black people and everyone else the rulers want to exclude from the “political process.”
In February 2017, another Texas woman, 37-year-old Rosa Maria Ortega, was sentenced to eight years in prison for voting in the 2012 and 2014 elections. Ortega is a permanent U.S. resident of Mexican descent who grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. A working-class mother of four teenagers, all U.S. citizens, Ortega did not realize that green card holders are not allowed to vote. “I thought I was doing something right for my country,” Ortega told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (13 February 2017). Having voted Republican, she is now the poster child for Trumpian claims of rampant ballot fraud. She is currently out on bond pending an appeal of her sentence. After Ortega’s conviction, the vicious Texas attorney general Ken Paxton gloated: “This case shows how serious Texas is about keeping its elections secure, and the outcome sends a message that violators of the state’s election law will be prosecuted to the fullest.”
It is a bitter irony that Ortega faces prison and deportation from Texas, a state formed on land that the U.S. stole from Mexico. Between 1848 and 1928, at least 232 people of Mexican descent were lynched in Texas. Under a system known as “Juan Crow,” Mexican Americans were banned from restaurants and deprived of basic democratic rights. In addition to targeting black voters, the attacks on voting rights in Texas today are also aimed at disenfranchising Mexican Americans and other Latinos, who make up 40 percent of the state’s population.
Everyone who lives in this country should have full and equal democratic rights. We oppose any restrictions on the rights of prisoners and released felons to vote. As part of our fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants, we call for full voting rights for all immigrants, whether legal or “illegal.” These non-citizens who live under the class dictatorship of America’s rulers and their laws make up 7 percent of the total population—i.e., millions of people are denied full political rights.
The U.S. was built on the notion that “the people who own the country ought to govern it,” as the first Chief Justice, John Jay, put it. Originally, the franchise was restricted to property-owning white men. The bloody system of chattel slavery was enshrined in the Constitution. The deal that specified that slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person when it came to determining representation gave the Southern slaveowners control of Washington. It took decades of struggle to expand the vote to poor white men, the Civil War to smash slavery and extend the franchise to black men, and it wasn’t until 1920 that women got the vote.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed under the pressure of the mass civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Black youth and working people, along with white activists, displayed enormous courage and succeeded in getting the racist rulers to grant some formal democratic rights, such as the right to vote and an end to official legal segregation in the South. The Act was expanded in 1975 to address racist discrimination against Mexican Americans, not least in Texas.
In 2013, the Supreme Court took a knife to the Voting Rights Act, using the absurd rationale that racism in the U.S. had been largely overcome. In an article at that time, we called this decision “nothing but a punch in the face to black people” (“Supreme Court Spits on Black Rights,” WV No. 1027, 12 July 2013). The Fifteenth Amendment granting voting rights regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” was ratified in 1870. But following the defeat of Reconstruction, it became a dead letter in the states of the old Confederacy, which employed poll taxes, literacy tests and other dirty tricks—backed up by the lynch rope terror of the Ku Klux Klan and local police (often intertwined)—to keep black people from casting ballots. The assaults on black voting rights today are the latest incarnation of this old song.
Since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Texas, along with other former Confederate states, has been spearheading a campaign to restrict voting rights. The state’s early attempts at crafting a voter photo ID law were so blatantly discriminatory against black people and Latinos that a 2016 federal appellate court ruling required the state to soften it. A similar law in North Carolina was struck down in 2016 because it targeted black voters with “almost surgical precision,” in the words of the judge’s decision. In 2017, the Supreme Court refused to reinstate the North Carolina law. Texas, however, kept on tweaking its restrictions and was finally rewarded on April 27, when a Fifth Circuit panel upheld the newest version.
In this era of mass incarceration, the disenfranchisement of convicted felons is a transparent device for blocking large numbers of black people and Latinos from exercising basic democratic rights. Some 6 million Americans have lost the right to vote due to felony convictions. A 2015 study reported that 2.2 million black adult U.S. citizens were prohibited from voting; nationally, more than one in eight voting-aged black men were ineligible to cast a ballot in the 2014 elections.
The assault on the right to vote has mainly been carried out by Republican governors and legislators in the name of preventing “voter fraud” and safeguarding election “integrity.” For their part, Democratic politicians went along with laws restricting voting rights for felons, though in recent months a few Democrats have called for easing them—in mainly Republican states. As for voter ID laws, the Democratic Party’s opposition to these measures is centered on swing states, whose importance is highlighted by the upcoming midterm elections. The in-your-face racist bigotry of the Republicans allows the Democrats to take support from black people for granted, without having to actually do anything for them.
There is, of course, real voter fraud. On April 23, Tarrant County justice of the peace Russ Casey, a Texas Republican, pleaded guilty to rigging his own election by turning in fake signatures to secure a place on a March 6 primary ballot. While Mason is looking at five years behind bars and Ortega has been sentenced to eight, Casey’s penalty was five years of probation. And it’s not just Republicans—Texas Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson was just as good at rounding up dead people to cast ballots and stealing elections as the notorious Chicago machine of former mayor Richard J. Daley.
The ballot is a fundamental democratic right that we tenaciously defend, but fundamental change will not come through voting. It was not by the ballot that slavery met its demise. Union rights did not come from Congress. All the gains working and black people have made came through their seizing them from the racist rulers by mass struggles on the battlefields, in the factories and on the streets.
When black people are declared to have no rights that others are bound to respect, it paints a target on the back of every black man, woman and child in this country. A serious defense of those rights demands resolute struggle against the capitalist system and opposition to the political parties that uphold its rule. The fight for the rights of the oppressed contributes to the struggle of the working class for its own liberation from capitalist exploitation through socialist revolution.
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(reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1133, 4 May 2018)
Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.