That appears to be what happened in Iran. And it's also what happened in this country at times in our history when huge swaths of our citizens were denied a voice in governance.
It was the days of Jim Crow and gerrymandering, when voting districts in the South were structured so that the black vote was watered down or, in the worst cases, eliminated altogether. A time when men in white sheets did their dirty deeds with ropes and crosses at midnight.
Eventually, we found a way to dismantle the hateful oligarchy of the racists. It was called the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and gave the federal government unprecedented power to oversee local elections to ensure that every citizen of the Deep South, especially those once counted as three-fifths of humanity, could cast their ballots.
It worked. And it deserves to be recognized as one of the pillars of evolving social justice, along with the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act and Brown v. Board of Education.
But this doesn't mean that, 40-plus years after the fact, it can't be revisited to see if perhaps some of its provisions are dated and no longer relevant. Of course, don't tell that to the New York Times editorial board, the American Civil Liberties Union and many other groups for whom the mere notion that you could even think of revisiting the VRA is heretical.
And it's exactly why they trembled when the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to Section 5 of the act, thinking that the conservative justices would be able to overturn four decades of progress with a stroke of their mean-spirited pens.
Surprise! It didn't happen.
This week, the Supremes rendered their decision in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, the so-called "voting rights" case.
Although the court deftly avoided the issue of whether key portions of the law were constitutional, the chief justice made a telling observation:
"The historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable . . . [but] things have changed in the South."
Yes, Virginia, they have. In Virginia. And other sites south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Back in 1967, my father spent a summer in Mississippi registering black candidates for office and black citizens for the vote.
He came back with stories of little children using the "n-word" and "Yankee lawyers" dodging spit - and worse. He wrote in his diary that "It made me feel very ill to know that there were people in America who differed very little in my judgment from those who manned Auschwitz in 1944."
And that's why, 40 years ago, that law was a godsend.
But as Chief Justice Roberts noted in his majority opinion, today "minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels." He also observed that when Congress renewed the act in 2006, it relied on data more than three decades old. Talk about back to the future.
You'd think we could sensibly judge for ourselves whether in 2009, with a black president sitting in the Oval Office after a serene and glitch-free election - and a black woman being one of the richest and most influential figures in the country - the Voting Rights Act could withstand a sensible critique - especially in utility-district voting in Texas.
YOU'D also think that, given what's happening in Iran, we could look at ourselves honestly and say, our votes, once threatened, are now safe.
At the very least, if we want to maintain the fiction that black voters are still denied their full rights at the ballot box, we could also acknowledge that white voters who are intimidated by Black Panther thugs at Philadelphia polling places should get the same federal protection.
But when the Justice Department shelves the prosecution of those thugs, you have your answer. I guess the times are indeed a-changin' - in some unexpectedly interesting ways. *
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer. See her on Channel 6's "Inside Story" Sunday at 11:30 a.m. E-mail email@example.com.