The Next Voting Rights Movement Must Start Now

The kind of fights that were waged in the 1960s to ensure that African Americans had equal access to the right to vote have to be fought again today for millions of voters across the country.


Tova Wang of Demos disusses the impact of conservative-led voter suppression efforts and how progressives can respond.

In state after state, new hurdles, such as voter ID laws, are being constructed to the right to vote that will especially trip up low-income people, students, rural residents and seniors. They disproportionately affect many of the groups who helped put Barack Obama in the White House in 2008 and who are in the vanguard of opposition to right-wing economic policies today. This disenfranchisement is largely happening below the radar of a populace and a national media preoccupied with the poor state of the economy and with the series of attacks by governors on public employee unions.

The latest affront to voting rights was signed into law Wednesday in South Carolina by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley. It’s a requirement that a person have a government-issued photo identification card—such as a driver’s license or a passport—in order to vote.

In signing the bill, Haley was quoted as saying, “If you can show a picture to buy Sudafed, if you can show a picture to get on an airplane, you should be able to show a picture to make sure that we do what is incredibly inherent in our freedoms and that is the ability to vote.”

Great rhetoric—except that this nation has never equated access to the ballot box to the ability to buy an allergy medication that could be used as a key ingredient in a highly addictive illegal drug or to the ability to board an airplane in a post-9/11 security environment. Besides, Americans don’t have a constitutional right to pseudoephedrine or a flight out of Charleston, S.C. We do have a constitutional right to exercise our right to vote.

This voter ID requirement is in fact a big deal for the estimated 178,000 South Carolina voters who don’t have the voter ID that they would now need in order to vote. It is true that in passing this law the state is waiving its $5 fee for a photo ID card (which had been set aside to pay for road maintenance). But the hoops these residents will have to jump through to get that ID still amount to what is in effect a type of poll tax. To get a photo ID card, one of the documents you will need is a birth certificate or some other “proof of citizenship;” In South Carolina, a birth certificate costs a minimum of $12; phone and online orders cost extra.

Imagine someone—an 18-year-old first-time voter or an 80-year-old who until now has had no need to prove their identity to anyone—having to pull together the money to pay for a birth certificate, assemble the other forms of required documentation, and then find the time and money to travel to a motor vehicle office, of which there are only 60 in a state that’s more than 30,000 square miles.

Yes, Gov. Haley, this is too much to ask to exercise the right to vote.

But what’s worse than the barriers to voting themselves is the thinly veiled motivation of the conservative lawmakers who are erecting them. Donna Brazile’s commentary for USA Today earlier this week lays these motivations bare:

The motivation is political — a cynical effort to restrict voting by traditionally Democratic-leaning Americans. In more than 30 states, GOP legislators are on the move, from a sweeping rewrite of Florida’s election laws to new rules for photo identification in Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina and more than 20 other states.

As a result, 11% of Americans —21 million citizens of voting age who lack proper photo identification — could be turned away on Election Day. And these people tend to be most highly concentrated among people of color, the poor, the young and the old.

Wisconsin’s state Senate is about to vote Thursday on that state’s voter ID law. That bill, too, adds hurdles to voting just as activists are organizing recall efforts against Republicans who acted to strip state public employees of their bargaining rights.

Then there is Florida, where a bill that is waiting for Gov. Rick Scott’s signature is expected to make voting harder for many state residents and shut down the voter registration drives that were successful in 2008 in getting thousands of people of color and young people voting and helped Obama win Florida that November. The legislation would require volunteers in registration drives to register with the state and requires that a voter registration card be submitted to the state within 48 hours after it is signed; otherwise the person obtaining the registration would have to pay a $50 fine for each late card. The League of Women Voters has vowed to end its voter registration drives in Florida if Scott signs this bill.

The bogeyman that is most often invoked when Republicans muscle these measures through state legislatures is that they are necessary to prevent voter fraud. This old canard has been debunked again and again, including particularly comprehensively by the Brennan Center for Justice. Plus, as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article notes, the Wisconsin voter ID bill does nothing to address the one real voter fraud problem the state does have: felons voting while under state supervision. There were no—repeat, no—documented cases of a person voting in Wisconsin under an assumed identity in the 2008 election.

In addition to voter ID laws, Republicans are using their majorities in state legislatures to redraw congressional district and state district lines in ways that will lock in their political dominance and lock out constituencies that threaten conservative hegemony.

Add to that the efforts by wealthy conservatives and corporations to finish the destruction of campaign finance law that was started by the Supreme Court Citizens United decision, and the campaign to neutralize the largest remaining counterweight to corporate money in elections—union power—and you have what Tova Wang of Demos and Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign call “a single war on democracy, pitting the political rights of the many against the deep pockets of a relative few.”

“Each of the rules changes cited above represents a transgression on traditional democratic values,” they go on to write. “In a well-functioning democracy, of course, a rebellious electorate might countermand such policies. And that is just what these right-wing operatives are seeking to pre-empt.”

Nonetheless, the electorate must rebel. It is time for us to demand that Attorney General Eric Holder stand up to these governors and state legislatures that are acting to suppress access to the voting booth, with lawsuits if necessary. It is time for us to call on the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, to hold hearings that will explore the extent to which these new laws are undermining the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.

And it is time for is to remember the names of the legislators who are trying to turn an open democracy into a gated community designed to keep out the “riff-raff”—those of us, in other words, who are not like them and have the temerity to disagree with their co-opting of democracy. We must not let them succeed.


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