Tuesday, March 12, 2013

In defense of our voting rights

Printing in Lafayette Journal & Courier, Monday, March 11, 2013

It is hard to imagine in a country built on the idea of democracy and one person/one vote, that there would be such a debate today over voting rights. Yet, here we are in 2013, and there is a debate over the rules of the voting game that has the potential of curtailing those rights.

It seemed too ironic that we celebrated the 100th anniversary of a historic Washington, D.C., march for women’s suffrage on March 3, when days before the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on stripping the 1965 Voting Rights Act of a key provision that protects minority representation in much of the South.

The National Women Suffrage Parade was held in 1913, the day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, in an effort to bring attention to the issue. It would take seven years before the 19th Amendment would pass, guaranteeing women the right to vote.

The ties between minority and women voting rights goes back a long way. Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass was one of a handful of men who participated in the first women suffrage convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. African-American activists Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells publicly fought for women suffrage.

The 1913 march recreated the one of the first acts of Delta Sigma Theta, an African-American sorority that had recently formed at Howard University. Today, Delta Sigma Theta is one of the largest black sororities, with more than 300,000 women.

Ironically, after the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, it would take 45 years for the Voting Rights Acts to take down the last voting barriers for many blacks.

In the past four years, there have been a number of laws aimed at who should be allowed to vote and how those voters should be identified, regardless of sex and race. Those rules seemed to target certain groups.

Supporters for voter identification laws say these rules are needed so Americans can have confidence in the election system by making sure only eligible voters are casting ballots. For now, let’s take them at their word, even though it’s just a little suspicious that the bulk of these laws were proposed or passed after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.

Voter ID laws should not come at the expense of voter disenfranchisement. Laws that don’t sufficiently address that concern are playing politics with voting. Yes, you can have voter ID laws and have maximum voter participation. One is not exclusive of the other.

It would take using current and new social media technology to make that happen. It would take possibly expanding motor voter laws and more. Yes, it could cost states a little more in the budget.

But if we treasure the right to vote as much as we say, then the cost of securing the vote and not limiting eligible voters are worth it. If state officials crow about efforts to secure the vote then cry about limiting, say, early voting dates and times because of budget concerns, they are trying to game the system. That hurts women, minorities and, frankly, everyone.

As we celebrate women’s suffrage during Women History Month, this should be a perfect time to remind citizens how things were and why the clock should never be turned back to those times for even one second.

Hughes is a member of the Greater Lafayette Commerce's Diversity Roundtable.

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