For Many, Voting Rights Remain At Risk

For Many, Voting Rights Remain At Risk

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When the founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia to form a new country called the United States, they believed it prudent to only guarantee voting rights for white males who owned property.

Centuries later, despite constitutional amendments and congressional laws, many Americans now find that voting is viewed as a privilege instead of a right.

“Voter suppression is no less than an attack on the sanctity of our democracy, and any effort that makes it more challenging for voters to cast their ballots should be viewed as suspect,” said Channelle Hardy, senior vice president for policy for the National Urban League and executive director of the organization’s Washington bureau.

“Black America faces far too many urgent challenges – from unemployment to homeownership to equity in education – to have our most potent weapon, the vote, stolen from us. Unfortunately, we have seen particular parties and particular states develop and apply discriminatory voting rules [under] the guise of preventing ‘voter fraud,’ which has been found to be virtually non-existent,” said Hardy, 37, whose office is located in Northwest.

Hardy said her organization continues to collaborate with other civil rights groups to promote passage of the Voting Rights Amendment Act, which seeks to address the “dismantling of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court last year.”

“Many of our affiliates across the U.S. are engaged in efforts to educate, register and get voters to the polls through such efforts as our Project Advocate campaign,” Hardy added.

During a recent teleconference with members of the ethnic media, threats to voting rights in this year’s midterm elections and beyond took center stage.

“We need to revitalize the voting rights movement particularly in light of efforts being waged in states like Florida, Virginia, Texas, Ohio, Mississippi and North Carolina that have not only targeted blacks but Latinos and those formerly incarcerated,” said Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, director of voter protection at the Advancement Project, an organization founded in 1999 by civil rights lawyers in Los Angeles and the District who believed that structural racism could be dismantled by changing public policies.

“We’re still concerned about cuts in early voting despite long lines of voters, redistricting, moving voting locations from areas that were more accessible for voters, voting materials not being in multiple languages and states with strict photo ID policies that are required for one to vote. It can all be quite confusing to voters. In some states like Virginia, where an estimated 200,000 people do not have state-issued IDs or a driver’s license, we could see the number of ineligible voters double. We have to get the word out,” said Culliton-Gonzalez.

One civil rights icon and current member of Congress berated the changes in state laws.

“This is a deliberate effort to take us back to another period in our country’s history – the vote controls everything we do and is precious,” said Rep. John Lewis, who represents the 5th Congressional District in Georgia.

“Fifty years ago, three young men I knew gave their lives so that all of us would be able to participate in the democratic process. If we want to avoid more Fergusons, we must vote. Our community has grown too quiet. We need to organize disciplined campaigns, recruit a cadre of youth and train them in the essentials so that we don’t lose those rights for which we fought so hard to obtain,” said Lewis, 71.

Promoting and protecting the civil and human rights of all U.S. citizens have been the focus for one leader, who said blacks must bear part of the blame for successful suppressive actions.

“If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and counsel to the Leadership Conference Education Fund.

“What we’re witnessing is a concerted effort to strip us of our fundamental right to vote. Right after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, certain factions began to strategize, seeking to subvert the next presidential election. The failure by blacks to vote in the 2010 [midterm elections] cost us greatly. We turned out in record numbers, in part, because we had a black candidate running for president. But our interests should be the reason why we vote and why we demand the right to vote,” said Henderson, 66.

Finally, the chairperson for the Congressional Black Caucus said it’s time we remember what our ancestors endured in order to gain equal rights under the law.

“I think it was Mary McLeod Bethune who reminded us that if we just have half the courage that our forefathers did, we should be able to find a way to do what’s needed in our day like they did in theirs – that’s wisdom,” said Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, who has represented Ohio’s 11th Congressional District since 2008.

“We can’t afford to sit back and watch. We have to be bold and proactive. And we have to show up at the polls in these midterm elections because the politicians who are elected and the policies they usher in will impact all of us for years to come,” said Fudge, 61.