With New Voter ID Laws, More Than Just Americans' Rights At Risk
Throughout much of our history, oppressed groups have fought for and have won the right to vote. “Taxation without representation” was both a rallying cry for the American Revolution, and also a primary reason why our Founding Fathers chose to rebel against British rule. Suffrage was an important goal for the Women’s Rights Movement, a push that culminated in the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed that no person could be denied the right to vote based on gender. Even leaders of the Civil Rights Movement saw voting rights for African-Americans as essential to the fight for equality; to that end, individuals like Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers even sacrificed their lives in support of the enfranchisement of African-Americans.
This aspect of our country's history has resulted in relative equality when it comes to electing our own representatives, and our current voting environment is what gives us the credibility to advocate for voting rights abroad. In recent years, the U.S. has pressured countries like Russia when suspicions arose that its ruling party had rigged a parliamentary election. Protestors in Iran reached out to the U.S. for help in 2009, when their own government chose not to engage in free and fair election practices. And the State Department has a long history of protecting democracy abroad.
The U.S. needs to maintain its moral authority on voting rights in order to successfully fight for the rights of oppressed peoples around the world. Which is why recent attempts to curb those rights are so troubling.
A number of states have passed new stringent voter ID laws that require voters to take cumbersome steps before they can cast their ballots in November. One Pennsylvania Republican lawmaker framed his state’s new law as a way to help Romney win in November. Ohio Governor John Kasich recently signed a bill eliminating the last three days of early voting in his state, a period when 93,000 Ohioans went to the polls in 2008. The state of Texas is currently engaged in its own legal battle over laws that Justice Department officials say could disenfranchise as many as 600,000 people.
The arguments for and against these laws have been constantly proposed and debated by pundits on both sides of the political aisle for months now. Republicans claim that these laws are essential to eliminating voter fraud. Democrats argue that they constitute a Republican tactic to prevent poor and minority voters (who often lack required forms of I.D. and take advantage of early voting periods) from casting their ballots in November.
Partisan arguments notwithstanding, here’s what the facts say: in a 3-year effort to vigorously identify and prosecute perpetrators of voting fraud throughout the nation, the Bush Justice Department was only able to prosecute or obtain guilty pleas from 26 people. Are stricter voting laws that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of people before the upcoming election, really going to help those statistics?
The United States is not a perfect nation. Our history proves that we’ve made mistakes before, and that these mistakes have translated into injustices committed against some of our nation’s most vulnerable inhabitants. But our history also demonstrates a trend in this country - an upward trend of expanding the franchise and increasing the rights of the oppressed. It would be shameful if that trend were reversed, and thereby endangered our efforts to assist the downtrodden across the globe.