In this week when the nation observes the 50th anniversary of James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi (see my previous blog on this topic), it seems hard to believe that in the United States we still must worry about voting rights. Didn’t voter suppression go out with fire hoses and police dogs attacking demonstrators?
Hasn’t this nation learned anything from the shame of a historical legal fact, originally set forth in the Constitution in 1787, that treated some human beings — slaves — as three-fifths of humanity for the specific purpose of giving more votes and political advantage to the perpetrators of the sin of slavery? The slaves could not vote, but their very presence gave their owners great political power.
Have we forgotten that most African Americans in this country only became citizens with the right to vote after Emancipation, the Civil War and the great Reconstruction Amendments were enacted 150 years ago? (The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery; the 14th Amendment guarantees full rights for all citizens; the 15th Amendment protects voting rights.)
Did we learn nothing from the fact that, even after those Constitutional Amendments, this nation still needed a Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) to address widespread efforts to discourage African Americans from voting?
Have we forgotten that as recently as the childhoods of our grandmothers, women did not have the right to vote?
In all of the noise of the political ads and spin machines and blaring headlines of this campaign, have we forgotten what matters most — the freedom of each and every person in this country to participate in the act of self-governance, the essence of democracy, exercising the right to vote.
For those who are more concerned about getting Nats’ World Series tickets, here’s the recap on the Great Voting Rights Heist of 2012: around the country in the last several years, state legislatures — particularly those in “swing” states with electoral votes that could swing the presidential election to one candidate or another — have increasingly enacted legislation that would require voters to show some kind of government-issued ID before being allowed to vote.
Advocates for voting rights say that these laws will have the effect of denying the right to vote to particularly vulnerable populations — the elderly, the impoverished, people who are mobile like college students, and perhaps most notably, African American citizens for whom governmental barriers to full citizenship sounds like a very old, worn out tune.
Advocates of these ID laws say they are trying to prevent voter fraud. But numerous studies show that there is not a problem with voter fraud in the general population.
This week, a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge temporarily suspended that state’s recent requirement that voters must have a government ID. The ruling, while not a complete victory for voting rights, is widely seen as a signal that efforts to suppress votes through imposing ID requirements may fail ultimate legal tests.
Some people view this as a political issue, saying that Republicans are trying to prevent voters who tend to vote Democratic from casting votes in this election. I’m not that cynical about party politics. I like to think that even the most die-hard Republicans AND Democrats can all agree on the importance of free and full citizenship for all people. Rather than casting this dispute in party terms, we need to see it for what it is in moral terms: an effort by some people to deny fundamental rights to others, quite often for the most shameful reason of all — racism.
Let’s not kid ourselves about the moral condition of our nation when it comes to civil and human rights: we have not resolved the sins of our past. This is not about party politics, but rather, about the human condition and the deep rivers of hatred that continue to carve fissures in parts of our society.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had leaders on both sides of the aisle who would call this out? Sadly, the political season is so perverse, so rife with negative campaigning, that fundamentally important issues wither. Neither major candidate would dare anger their financial backers or major bases of support — so, we have a sad spectacle of democracy at risk and no leaders really raising their voices against voter suppression.
Just once, I wish both candidates would get really passionate about something they both could agree on — the fundamental importance of freedom for all, the essential role of the leader as advocate-in-chief for our rights and liberties. Calling out voter suppression should be a topic that rises well above party politics to a level of genuine moral leadership for the nation.
It won’t happen — but a girl can dream!
To learn more about this important topic, read this article in The Nation is an excellent summary of these issues.
See The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU
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