TODAY, THE RIGHT to vote is under assault across the country. From photo ID requirements to restrictions on voter registration, there are new barriers to the ballot box. While proponents of recent election law changes claim those changes are “race-neutral,” the measures will have a disproportionate impact on minority voters.
In Florida, for instance, African Americans made up 32 percent of those who voted on the Sunday before Election Day 2008, often in “all souls to the polls” drives organized by historically black churches. They were among the nearly 8 million Americans who voted early. Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia have since passed legislation reducing early voting.
The tea party-infused True the Vote, reportedly bankrolled by Far Right billionaires Charles and David Koch, plans to bring lawsuits to purge the voter rolls of allegedly ineligible voters. While the fear-inducing image of non-citizens voting has little to no basis in reality, it has real consequences.
In Florida, a law passed last year effectively stopped the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote, and similar groups from conducting voter registration drives this spring. The law imposed restrictions on voter registration volunteers and subjected groups to $1,000-a-day fines if they didn’t turn in voter registration forms within 48 hours of completion. While parts of the law were temporarily blocked at the end of May by a federal judge as unconstitutionally “harsh and impractical,” it has already prevented civic groups from registering voters for some months. Registration drives encourage voting among the young and people of color, who often vote Democratic.
Also at the end of May, the Justice Department sent a letter to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner to cease and desist another voter-suppression measure: the process, ordered by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, that seeks to remove thousands of alleged “non-citizens” from the voter rolls if they do not request a hearing to prove their citizenship. The list, based on flawed DMV data, was so riddled with errors that the official who compiled the information, Secretary of State Kurt Browning, had refused to put it into use; it was sent out after his resignation. More than 2,000 Floridians have already been sent letters. According to one analysis, 58 percent of those voters are Latinos (only 13 percent of Florida registered voters are Latinos), 14 percent are black, and 13 percent are white. Although the Justice Department notified the state that the purge “appears to violate” the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, at press time Florida had refused to halt the voter purge, though some county election supervisors were refusing to participate.
Voter ID laws are also making it harder for millions of Americans to vote. Passed in eight states last year alone, the number of such laws has multiplied since they were endorsed in 2009 by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national association of state legislators and their corporate sponsors, funded almost exclusively by corporations (and conservative foundations such as the Koch brothers’). Several laws are on hold pending legal challenges by the Justice Department.
In his remarks before the Conference of National Black Churches’ 2012 Faith Leaders Summit, Congressional Black Caucus chair Emanuel Cleaver, a United Methodist pastor, called on the faith community to join the fight for voting rights: “The day is over when [pastors] could just stand in the pulpit and say, ‘Go vote. It’s your duty.’ They’ve got to now be equipped with some sophisticated information to help inspire a turnout and protect parishioners from some of the schemes that are out there.”
The civil rights generation fought for the right to vote. It’s now the duty of this generation to safeguard a fundamental right of U.S. democracy. The struggle continues.
Faye M. Anderson is project manager for the Cost of Freedom Project (app.costoffreedom.info ), a citizen-led initiative developing location-based apps to provide voters with information on how to obtain a voter ID.