By Celia Murray
President George W. Bush opened his second term with a vow to promote democracy around the world. The United States has long proclaimed its commitment to equal rights and broad democratic participation. Equal access to the franchise – the right to vote – is its fundamental pillar. But, as E. J. Dionne writes in the Washington Post, “We seem to be abandoning those ideals at home. You have to wonder what this will do to our witness on behalf of democracy.”
The Supreme Court’s recent decision gutting significant portions of the Voting Rights Act emboldened Republican legislatures in several states, which hurried to pass voter-suppression bills. Such bills constitute a grave threat to that most sacred of American freedoms: the right to vote.
North Carolina’s bill, signed recently by that state’s Republican governor is especially draconian. The New York Times’ David Firestone described its basic provisions. “The law requires a government-issued photo ID card to vote, but doesn’t allow student IDs, public-employee IDs, or photo IDs issued by public assistance agencies. It shortens the early voting window, bans same-day registration during early voting and prohibits paid voter registration drives. Counties will not be able to extend voting hours in cases of long lines, or allow provisional voting if someone arrives at the wrong precinct. Poll ‘observers’ are encouraged to challenge people who show up to vote, and are given new powers to do so.”
States do have a valid interest to ensure that voters are who they say they are, but these laws have nothing to do with fraud. According to Firestone, “Out of 7 million ballots cast in the state in 2012, there were 121 allegations of voter fraud, a rate of .00174 percent. Republicans aren’t even claiming the measure will reduce fraud – only that it will provide reassurance to those who worry about it.”
Of the 319,000 North Carolinians who lack a photo ID and will have a hard time voting, a disproportionate number are black or poor. At least one is fighting back. Ninety-two-year-old Rosanell Eaton has filed suit. According to the Charlotte Observer’s Peter St. Onge, “Eaton first voted more than seven decades ago, when doing so was a more difficult thing for blacks in the South. How difficult? When she was 18, she recalls, Eaton rode with her mother on her brother’s mule wagon to the county courthouse to register. Before young Rosanell could add her name to the rolls, however, a clerk told her to stand against the wall, look straight ahead, and recite the preamble to the Constitution without missing a word.” Eaton’s suit alleges she will incur substantial time and expense to meet the state’s new requirements. As St. Onge puts it, “she’s a real victim of a law that will do exactly as it intends: make voting more difficult.”
As the Washington Post’s editorial said, “The bill is a truly abominable piece of anti-democratic legislation, the only likely effect of which will be to make it increasingly difficult – maybe even impossible – for some people who don’t typically support Republicans to be able to vote.”
Shouldn’t a primary goal of our government be vigorous and widespread participation in our democracy? I think so.
Celia Murray is a member of the Morgan County Democratic Committee.