Republican lawmakers across the country have been waging an successful campaign to restrict the right to vote. States are cracking down on non-profit organizations’ registration drives, reducing early voting periods, and repealing laws allowing citizens to register to vote at the polls on Election day, leaving as many as 5 million voters facing disenfranchisement in the 2012 election. Perhaps the most radical restriction is the GOP’s push for voter ID laws that require citizens to obtain and present state-approved photo identification to vote. These laws disproportionately (and perhaps purposefully) affect minorities, seniors, and low-income people who typically make up the Democratic base. At least six states have passed such restrictions.
Incensed by the regressive trend, civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) put the Republican efforts into historical context. “In 2011, we should be ashamed,” he said Tuesday night on the House floor. “We should be making it easy, simple, and convenient to vote. Instead we’re creating barriers and making it more difficult.” Noting that “we cannot separate the dangerous trend across this nation from our history,” Lewis warned of our “step backward towards another dark time in our history.” Singling out the voter ID laws as a particular “threat,” Lewis reiterated, “Make no mistake, these voter ID laws are a poll tax. I know what I saw during the 60s”:
LEWIS: Each and every voter ID law is a real threat to voting rights in America. Make no mistake, these voter ID laws are a poll tax. I know what I saw during the 60s. I saw poll tax. And you cannot deny that these ID laws are another form of a poll tax. In an economy where people are already struggling to pay for the most basic necessities, there are too many citizens that would be unable to afford the fees and transportation costs involved in getting government issued photo Ids. Despite all the voter ID laws across the country, there’s no convincing evidence — no evidence at all — that voter fraud is a problem in our election problem.
The right to vote is precious — almost sacred — and one of the most important blessings of our democracy. Today, we must stand up and fight. The history of the right to vote in America is a history of conflict, of struggle, for that right. Many people died trying to protect that right. I was beaten and jailed because I stood up for it. For millions like me, the struggle for the right to vote is not mere history, it is experience.
Since he was 21 years old, Lewis has been a seminal leader in the non-violent struggle to achieve voter and racial equality in this country. He “endured brutal beatings by angry mobs and suffered a fractured skull,” and was nearly beaten to death to achieve a basic freedom that is once again being infringed upon today.
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), who has been leading the House effort against voter ID restrictions, reflected on Lewis’ words: “Congressman Lewis has risked his life to ensure that every American has the right to vote. His bravery should stand as an inspiration to us all to continue the fight against Republican efforts to suppress voting. His perspective on this issue is invaluable.”