Mark Pryor’s cyber letter

Concise prose is not always the standard of our era’s political epistles; a candidate’s appeal for support can run on for pages. Sen. Mark Pryor’s cyber-letter, however, was remarkable not only for its brevity — fewer than 200 words — but its potential significance to not only his campaign for a third U.S. Senate term, but to Democratic nominees in Arkansas for governor and downballot races.

As it happens Pryor’s message springs from a tactic being employed by Democrats elsewhere in the nation, especially in the South. Anxious to not only maintain control of the Senate but prayerful of wresting away from the GOP some seats in the Congress, perhaps even a governorship or two, these strategists believe a serious obstacle is Barack Obama.

Not that the president will be on the ticket, but that he won’t be.

Minority turnout in off-year elections historically has been lackluster above and below the Mason-Dixon Line save in exceptional district races with popular incumbents of color under challenge by (often) under-funded rivals. Motivating African-American and Latino voters to get to the polls next year will be especially important to Democratic hopefuls. The present Senate is divided 54 (counting two independents who almost always vote “Blue”) to 46 in the Democrats’ favor, but retirements and tough races such as Pryor’s have their majority in jeopardy.

The U.S. Supreme Court inadvertently may have given the Democrats a helping hand with its decision in June invalidating a key section of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The court voided a requirement that nine states, most in the South, must first obtain permission from the U.S. Justice Department before amending their election codes. Arkansas was not among the subject states but you wouldn’t know it from Pryor’s cyber-letter, e-mailed to a few thousands of his closest friends and potential supporters.

Noting the impending 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Pryor included a home-state reference. “Like the Little Rock Nine, the March had a profound impact on advancing civil rights in our nation, leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.” The court’s decision had enabled states “to discriminate against minority voters at the ballot box. It opened the doors to discriminatory voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts.

“Voting is a right that’s fundamental to our democracy,” Pryor continued, warning: “We cannot fall back now.”

Pryor did not mention the voter identification law enacted by the General Assembly this year, but likely he will in the months ahead; and if he doesn’t, perhaps from reluctance to antagonize white voters who overwhelmingly support it, his surrogates will attack it zestfully. And in carefully targeted venues.

(It is worth mentioning that while Arkansas’s election laws and redistricting plans were not subject to mandatory federal monitoring, other portions of the Voting Rights Act, notably those intended to deliberately dilute minority voting strength, were upheld by the Court and remain applicable to all states. In that regard a dozen violations of the Act have been alleged in Arkansas in recent years, and in four of the cases, one involving Pine Bluff and another Craighead County, the plaintiffs were successful).

Republican legislators, federal and state, have picked up where the Supreme Court left off, giving Democratic critics additional ammunition. Attempts to restrict participation in voter registration programs and to cut VRA enforcement appropriations were the work of two Georgia congressmen. North Carolina, its statehouse firmly in GOP hands, has enacted its version of voter I.D. Florida scaled back early voting but retreated under enormous minority protest. The ink had barely dried on the Court’s VRA strikedown before Texas enacted a “voter fraud” act, prompting a lawsuit from Mr. Obama’s Justice Department and a promise that other states could expect the same.

In the meantime Democratic leaders in both Senate and House will keep the issue on the front burner, or near it. Expect some hearings and possibly some show votes on a new version of the VRA (which the court suggested was permissible). The chances of a revised VRA are not swell, but passing one is less the immediate objective than engaging new or indifferent black voters next autumn.

Can the VRA controversy, coupled with our Voter ID statute, trigger a backlash among minority voters in Arkansas? Provide the spur that will invigorate black political power, especially crucial in a razor-close election such as that predicted for Pryor?

Probably not — not without a spirited, well-financed effort by knowledgeable pros to identify unregistered voters, make it possible for them to enroll and then get them to the polls. And they’ll have to get it done without an African-American at the top of the ticket.

It’s almost ironic: Mr. Obama has been the bane of Democrats in Arkansas for six years. Where is he when they need him?

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.