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Don't Allow Americans' Voting Rights to be Attacked

December 13, 2011

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin on Tuesday to address potential new barriers between citizens and their right to vote. 

Speaking at the library, which honors the service of an American who fought for the seminal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and opened the doors to our democracy for millions of Americans, the attorney general acknowledged that this work continues, declaring: "Ensuring that every veteran, every senior, every college student, and every eligible citizen has the right to vote must become our common cause. And, for all Americans, protecting this right, ensuring meaningful access and combating discrimination must be viewed, not only as a legal issue but as a moral imperative."

We have a long history of struggle over the right to vote in this country. Yet, again and again, we have reaffirmed the principle that every American adult has an equal right to cast a ballot without the requirement of a poll tax or discrimination based on race, sex or age.

It was this principle that motivated those who were beaten and bloodied while trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the year LBJ finally succeeded in passing the Voting Rights Act. They sang about overcoming injustice while the truncheons came down upon them, and they would not relent in their efforts to have their constitutional right to vote honored. One of us was a participant in the march; both of us have been there to commemorate it many times.

The exercise of this right is under threat again. Not from batons or water hoses but from those intent on hindering access to the ballot for the perverse purpose of manipulating elections. We cannot afford to allow access to the voting booth to be granted or denied based on political expediency.

The decision in November 2012 over the direction of our country is too important not to ensure every voice is heard. That is why Democrats in the House of Representatives will be working closely with the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and voting-rights groups to make certain that all who have the right to vote can do so and have their votes counted. This is the commitment we made when we passed the Help America Vote Act, which sought to address widespread ballot disqualifications in the 2000 election and set guidelines to prevent it from reoccurring. It remains our commitment today.

We will not sit idly by while Republican lawmakers in state legislatures raise barriers to ballot access for minorities, young people and low-income families.

New measures introduced in several states would mandate government-issued, current photo identification for all wishing to vote. However, as many as one in four African Americans do not carry the necessary forms of identification to vote under these conditions and would be hit hard by these new laws. For college students, many school-issued identification cards also do not fit the strict requirements. In some places, one will be able to vote by showing a gun permit but not a student ID, even one with a photo and issued by a local, accredited academic institution.

This means hours of waiting in line or dealing with bureaucracy to obtain new identification cards — and in the process asks those working multiple jobs while raising families to spend time they simply don't have. It also means fees for identification cards, which, essentially, are a new and restrictive poll tax for those unable to afford them.

New laws would also restrict opportunities for early voting or voter registration. African Americans and Latinos make use of early voting, especially opportunities to vote on the Sunday before Election Day, disproportionately compared with other groups. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a third of those who cast ballots on the Sunday before the 2008 general election were African Americans, and nearly a quarter were Latinos.

Those supporting these measures have contended they are a solution to alleged widespread voter fraud. However, the measures are a solution in search of a problem.

Overwhelming evidence shows that such fraud is extremely rare and has no significant impact on our elections. It is, though, an expedient excuse for denying the vote to those who have traditionally cast ballots in larger numbers for the other party.

We are encouraged that Holder, in his address, reaffirmed the Justice Department's commitment to defend the Voting Rights Act and the principles behind it by helping to safeguard ballot access for all who are eligible.

The right to vote is the basic instrument of our equality and the method by which we hold our leaders accountable and preserves the legitimacy of our representative form of government. It is a right worth fighting for, and Democrats are ready to do so again this year.