Today Americans are going to the polls to vote in state and local elections. But one year from now, millions of black Americans could find themselves shut out of that essential democratic right.
Larry Butler, a longtime voter, may be one of those denied. Butler was born in 1926 in South Carolina. He remembers well the days of Jim Crow, poll taxes and literacy tests that barred many African-American citizens from the voting booth. He witnessed the valiant struggle to ensure that all of South Carolina's citizens could raise their voices on Election Day.
Now it seems like those days are back. Butler was born at home during an era of strict segregation in which African Americans did not have access to hospitals. Because Butler does not have an official birth certificate, he was denied the free, state photo ID and was told it would cost $150 to get the required document to obtain one. He experienced a modern-day version of the poll tax. Unlike Butler, most Americans will not have to pay more than $100 to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right. The Associated Press recently reported that South Carolina's law will, in fact, hit black precincts the hardest.
Dorothy Cooper, 96, of Tennessee, has a similar tale. Despite having a copy of her lease, a rental receipt, her voter registration card and her birth certificate, she was denied a voter ID because her birth certificate is in her maiden name and she can't find her marriage license. Following widespread media attention and a public outcry, she was given back her voice and granted a state photo ID, but millions of other voters will not be so fortunate next year.
The spate of new laws that will deny the franchise to millions include draconian limits on voter-registration groups and early voting, requirements for restrictive state photo ID to vote and the denial of the vote to people with criminal records who have paid their debt to society. Not all Americans will be impacted equally, and the restrictions will fall most heavily on African Americans, Latinos, the young, the elderly and the disabled. These are the groups that are the least wealthy, the least likely to vote for the interests of the 1 percent and who surged to the polls in 2008.
The numbers are staggering; an estimated 5 million eligible voters are impacted by the new laws passed to date — more than the margin of error in the last two of the three presidential elections. It is not just coincidence that the states in which these laws exist now represent 171 electoral votes, two-thirds of those needed to win the presidency, and of the 12 likely battleground states, six have already cut back on voting rights and more are currently considering new restrictions.
A film by Brave New Foundation released today (see an excerpt below) highlights the backing of the billionaire Koch brothers for voter-suppression efforts around the nation. It is no accident that the same corporate interests that have fueled the anger against economic injustice voiced by the Occupy Wall Street movement would deny 99 percent of Americans the expansive democracy tirelessly championed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. It promises a dangerous restructuring of our nation and stacks the deck against the 99 percent.
We already rank near the bottom of all nations among the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development Countries (which encompasses about 31 of the world's industrialized countries). The United States is 27th in child and senior poverty rates, income inequality, health and pre-primary education, according to the Germany-based Bertelsmann Stiftung Foundation.
African-American communities rank lower than that, with child poverty and infant mortality rates that rival any Third World nation.
If our voices in the voting booth are silenced, the consequences for changing those painful numbers are obvious.
We must and can fight back. Already progressive forces have compelled governors in Montana, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina and New Hampshire to veto photo ID laws, and we beat them back in others. We are launching a petition drive to call upon the Department of Justice to deny approval under the Voting Rights Act of discriminatory photo ID laws in South Carolina and Texas. In Missouri, we have already filed a lawsuit challenging a photo ID amendment to Missouri's constitution, and this is just the beginning.
These laws affect the very character of our democracy and pose an essential question for our country: Are we a democracy for the few or for the many? Are we rushing down the road to a new form of economic and political apartheid, or will we rise up, raise our voices loudly and fight diligently — we the 99 percent – for the moral core of America's promise: democracy for all.
Judith Browne Dianis is one of the nation's leading voting-rights litigators and co-director of the Advancement Project, a next-generation civil rights organization focused on issues of democracy and race.