In Debate, GOP Candidates Present Blurred View of MLK’s Vision

Candidates sparred over laws to restore the right to vote to former prisoners, and attacked the Voting Rights Act.

January 20, 2012

This Monday, as the Republican presidential field convened for a debate before the South Carolina primary, the candidates sparred over a variety of familiar debate topics, each one touting his past political achievements, electability, and virtuous campaign tactics. But, amid these familiar talking points, the candidates also broached a topic that had yet to surface in previous debates: namely, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On the day named in Dr. King’s honor, the GOP candidates struggled to reconcile some of their controversial stances on voting rights policy with Dr. King’s celebrated struggle to expand the franchise. Former Sen. Rick Santorum invoked Dr. King’s memory by challenging the veracity of an attack ad run by a pro-Romney Super PAC, which falsely painted Santorum as supporting voting rights for incarcerated prisoners. Santorum used the opportunity to clarify that while he did support legislation, named in honor of Dr. King, to restore voting rights to people who completed their sentences, he never advocated letting current prisoners vote. Former Gov. Mitt Romney responded by taking a harder line, arguing that a person who has committed a violent crime should never be allowed to vote, regardless of how long ago the crime was committed and irrespective of whether criminal justice officials in the state have deemed the individual fit to re-enter society. This position — permanent disenfranchisement — is so extreme that only a handful of states have actually adopted the policy.

Santorum also highlighted another problem with Romney’s position: “This is Martin Luther King Day. This is a huge deal in the African-American community, because we have very high rates of incarceration — disproportionately high rates, particularly with drug crimes — in the African-American community.”

Santorum is right to highlight the link between the mass incarceration of African Americans and the racial disparities in voting that criminal disenfranchisement laws cause. But disenfranchising people with criminal convictions is more than just a “huge deal” for the African-American community — it is an issue of fairness for all our communities. More than 4 million Americans who currently live, work, and pay taxes in our communities are disenfranchised by state laws that bar individuals with criminal convictions from voting even after they’ve been released from prison. Dr. King’s struggle for equal access to the ballot box cannot be reconciled with state policies like these that disenfranchise free citizens — something Coretta Scott King noted shortly before her death.

Dr. King’s legacy surfaced again in Monday’s debate when Texas Gov. Rick Perry, responded harshly to a question about the enduring legacy of the Voting Rights Act. Moderator Juan Williams asked Mr. Perry, “Are you suggesting on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day that the federal government has no business scrutinizing the voting laws of states where minorities were once denied the right to vote?”

Rather than acknowledging the evidence of continuing racial discrimination in voting — evidence that led to the bipartisan, nearly unanimous reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 — Perry instead replied that Texas was “under assault by the federal government” and that “South Carolina is at war with this federal government,” referring to the Justice Department’s recent objections to voting changes in those states under the Voting Rights Act. Perry’s response to Williams’ question represents a very different view of the VRA than that of two of our recent presidents from Texas and of Dr. King himself. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the original VRA in Dr. King’s presence and, in 2006, President George W. Bush reauthorized the law, which was re-named in honor of Dr. King’s wife. It’s ironic that Texas’s latest presidential candidate would describe this seminal piece of civil rights legislation in such militaristic terms on the same day that the nation remembers a man who famously helped bring the law into being through nonviolent activism.

Shortly after the Civil War, with the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, our country made a pledge that no state would be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race when it comes to voting. A century later, our national government reaffirmed that pledge by enacting the Voting Rights Act. There should be little doubt that Dr. King would expect the federal government, as he did during his time, to ensure that states cannot backslide on the promises this country has made to prohibit racial discrimination in voting, or to provide equal opportunity for all its citizens, including those who have paid their debts to society.