Nothing is more fundamental to our democracy, or important to ensure that working peoples' voices are heard, than the right of every eligible citizen to vote.
Yet, this fundamental right was long denied to many Americans, and today there is a renewed effort in 34 states to enact state laws limiting the voting rights of people of color, the poor, the elderly and college students — constituencies that tend to support the middle class and working poor. If successful, more than 5 million eligible American citizens may be denied the right to vote in the November elections.
History of voting suppression
When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, only white men with property could vote, and even white Catholics, Jews, Quakers and certain other men were denied this right. Black men, by law, were denied the franchise until 1870, but even then other groups, including Chinese and Native Americans, were still barred by law from voting. Women did not gain the right to vote until 1920. Even after women and people of color won the legal right to vote, this right was often effectively denied by threats of violence and by state-imposed literacy tests and poll taxes. These requirements were directed at suppressing black voting rights.
It was not until the 1965 Voting Rights Act, enacted with the strong support of organized labor, that the right to vote became a reality for many Americans. That law prohibits states from imposing any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, or procedure ... to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."
Voting rights under new attack
The right to vote is again under attack in many state legislatures. The timing of the anti-voting legislation is no surprise, as the 2012 presidential election, control of Congress and many state elections are right around the corner. These efforts go hand-in-hand with companion legislative efforts to diminish the voice of the middle class and working people by eliminating collective bargaining and weakening unions. At the same time, under the United States Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which overturned a century of precedent restricting corporate campaign contributions, the wealthiest corporations and individuals have gained unprecedented and extraordinary power over who can run for office, how campaigns are financed and who can vote.
Modern voter suppression schemes take several forms:
• increasing barriers to voter registration;
• dramatically shortening the period allowed for early voting;
• stringent photo identification requirements; and
• disenfranchising former convicts.
Since January, several states, including Kansas and Alabama, have enacted legislation that makes it more burdensome for citizens to register to vote. Florida and Texas have made it more difficult for well-established good government groups, such as the League of Women Voters, to conduct voter registration drives. As a result, the League of Women Voters, which registered voters in Florida for approximately 70 years, announced that it was ending all registration efforts there. According to the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice, blacks and Latinos are more than twice as likely as white voters to register through a voter registration drive.
Several states have significantly shortened the opportunity for voters to cast ballots before Election Day, a well-used option that helped broaden access for minority and working class voters, many of whom are less likely, or unable, to vote on a work day. For example, early voting will be cut from 14 to eight days in Florida and from 35 to 11 days in Ohio, with limited hours on weekends. In addition, both states banned voting on the Sunday before the election, a day when black churches have historically mobilized their constituents to vote.
In other states, legislation has simply made it illegal for certain citizens to vote. In Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia, former convicts who completed their sentences and were released from prison, having served their debt to society, are now barred from voting. In Florida, nearly 100,000 former convicts are prohibited from voting. In Iowa, more than 100,000 former convicts can no longer vote, including one-third of the state's black residents.
The most popular tactic to prevent voter registration is to require citizens to obtain and display unexpired government-issued photo identification before they can vote. This requirement is a departure from the longstanding practice of using voters' signatures or household identification, like a utility bill. The fact is many elderly, young, poor and student voters lack this type of identification. More than 21 million citizens, 11 percent of the population, do not have government ID cards.
According to Georgia Rep. John Lewis, conservative proponents have argued for photo ID mandates by claiming that widespread voter impersonation exists in America, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. While defending its photo ID law before the Supreme Court, Indiana was unable to cite a single instance of actual voter impersonation at any point in its history.
Study after study has shown that the issue of voter fraud is a myth. According to Rep. Lewis, claims of voter fraud are "a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process."
The New York Times stated in an editorial dated Oct. 9, 2011, that "there is almost no voting fraud in America. And none of the lawmakers who claim there is have ever been able to document any but the most isolated cases." Restrictive voter ID laws will hit the young, and particularly college students, very hard.
For example, in Wisconsin, a law was enacted that attempted to prevent students from registering to vote by preventing them from using their current student IDs. Fortunately, the law was challenged and has not been implemented. South Carolina prohibits the use of student IDs altogether. Texas also rejects student IDs, but allows voting by those who have a license to carry a concealed handgun. These schemes are clearly crafted to affect not just how people vote, but who votes.
What you can do
Unions and community activists are fighting back together to protect the right to vote. In Maine, the Coalition to Protect Maine Votes obtained enough signatures to allow residents of the state to put a measure on the November 2011 ballot to overturn legislation that eliminates same-day voter registration. A similar labor and community coalition is needed everywhere entrenched politicians seek to disenfranchise voters.
A very tangible step for NYSUT members, including retirees, is to participate in NYSUT's voter registration drive. If you or a family member or neighbor is not registered, then register, and urge them to register, right away. And, after you register — vote!
Every American's voice needs to be heard in upcoming elections. That is what our democracy demands.