The New York Times ran a bizarre op-ed Friday by Yale history professor David Blight, accusing Republicans of suppressing the black vote just like it was done to blacks before the Civil War, and suggested they would do the same to escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass: "Voter Suppression, Then and Now."
The text box asked: "Would today's G.O.P. let Frederick Douglass cast a ballot?" The answer would probably be "No," given Douglass died in 1895, though perhaps Democrats have a more lenient view of letting the dead vote.
Suppressing the black vote is a very old story in America, and it has never been just a Southern thing.
In 1840, and again in 1841, the former Frederick Bailey, now Frederick Douglass, walked a few blocks from his rented apartment on Ray Street in New Bedford, Mass., to the town hall, where he paid a local tax of $1.50 to register to vote. Born a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1818, Douglass escaped in an epic journey on trains and ferry boats, first to New York City, and then to the whaling port of New Bedford in 1838.
By the mid-1840s, he had emerged as one of the greatest orators and writers in American history. But legally, Douglass began his public life by committing what today we would consider voter fraud, using an assumed name.
It was a necessary step: when he registered to vote under his new identity, “Douglass,” a name he took from Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 epic poem “Lady of the Lake,” this fugitive slave was effectively an illegal immigrant in Massachusetts. He was still the legal “property” of Thomas Auld, his owner in St. Michaels, Md., and susceptible, under the federal fugitive slave law, to capture and return to slavery at any time.
Should this fugitive, who had committed the crime of stealing his own freedom and living under false identities, have been allowed to vote? Voting reforms in recent decades had broadened the franchise to include men who did not hold property but certainly not to anyone who was property.
Blight offered a modest proposal to the GOP: Pay blacks not to vote.
In Douglass’s greatest speech, the Fourth of July oration in 1852, he argued that often the only way to describe American hypocrisy about race was with “scorching irony,” “biting ridicule” and “withering sarcasm.” Today’s Republican Party seems deeply concerned with rooting out voter fraud of the kind Douglass practiced. So, with Douglass’s story as background, I have a modest proposal for it. In the 23 states where Republicans have either enacted voter-ID laws or shortened early voting hours in urban districts, and consistent with their current reigning ideology, they should adopt a simpler strategy of voter suppression.
To those potentially millions of young, elderly, brown and black registered voters who, despite no evidence of voter fraud, they now insist must obtain government ID, why not merely offer money? Pay them not to vote. Give each a check for $711 in honor of Frederick Douglass. Buy their “freedom,” and the election. Call it the “Frederick Douglass Voter Voucher.”
Since government ID is required to do virtually anything these days (including getting into the Democratic National Convention), Blight's over-the-top histrionics and bizarre historical comparison is deeply unconvincing. They're also pretty insulting toward the minorities he claims to be watching out for, who he assumes would take the Republican money. But Blight's basic ideas are in line with the paper's ideological line, expressed both in news pages and editorial pages, that requiring voter identification amounts to anti-black voter suppression on the part of the Republican Party.