Vail Daily column: Restore fairness to voter registration rolls
July 31, 2015
Need to prove your identity? Perhaps you are moving through an airport's security check point. Or, you desire to cash at your bank a third-party check. Identification is required. You show your driver's license.
Some citizens lack disposable income to purchase a driver's license. They don't have money for fees at the Motor Vehicle Bureau to get a license or renew one that's lapsed. These folks usually ride buses. They stand in long lines to receive food stamps. They live paycheck to paycheck.
They can't vote without a driver's license.
Commentator Wendy Weiser, who works for the Brennan Center for Justice, describes the plight of Sammie Louise Bates. Sammie vividly remembers August 6, 1965 when she was 25-years-old and eager to vote. That day President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act in the Capitol Hill's Sanctuary Hall. This Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of this monumental legislation. It opened doors of justice that had been shut to many would-be voters, too poor to own a car. It abolished poll taxes, which Southern states especially levied on each adult voter. Other discriminatory practices were abolished, too, that barred impoverished people from exercising their right to vote.
Today, Sammie finds herself in a fix not unlike those imposed on her elder family members who didn't vote because they couldn't pay hefty poll taxes. In 2013, her home state of Texas passed a new restrictive ID law. Texas officials wanted to protect against voter fraud. The legislation they passed took for granted that citizens owned valid drivers' licenses with photo IDs.
Before Sammie could apply for a license, however, she had to get a birth certificate. Cost: $42 — a pittance for Texas legislators but a sum that decimated Sammie's very modest resources. "We couldn't eat the birth certificate," Sammie protested in her lawsuit against Texas edicts that denied her the right to vote. "And, we couldn't pay rent with the birth certificate."
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Texas officials, enamored by voter fraud that virtually doesn't exist, preferred Sammie get lost in the crowd of citizens denied their right to vote.
It's a large crowd the Supreme Court elbowed from voting booths in their 2013 ruling that relaxed federal oversight of state voter ID requirements. Close to 600,000 citizens can't vote because of this unjust travesty. Mostly, minorities and poor people are barred.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the court's majority opinion. She labeled the law "purposefully discriminatory" and "one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax."
Of course, states welcomed this ruling because it cleaned voting rolls. Are you surprised at the Brennan Center's finding about states that increased voting requirements? During Barack Obama's 2008 run to the presidency, African-American voters used the ballot box. As more states recorded increases in minority and low-income voter turn-out, officials decreased voter rolls with sterner ID requirements. Result: the poor were denied their right to vote.
Guess who benefited? White guys who drive cars and have valid drivers' licenses.
Writes Weiser, "After decades of progress, the past five years has seen the most extensive attack on voting rights since the VRA (1965 Voting Rights Act) was signed into law. Since 2011, every state but one has considered legislation that would make it harder for many eligible citizens to vote, and half the states passed new voting restrictions. By the 2014 election, after lawsuits and repeal efforts, voters in 21 states face tougher voting rules than they did in 2010."
President Lyndon Baines Johnson saw firsthand voter discrimination against Mexican-Americans when he was a teacher in the 1920s in the poor town of Cotulla, Texas. Parents of students tried to vote. Precinct officials concocted excuses: voters arrived late; they lacked middle names on their birth certificates; and, their signatures weren't in cursive hand-writing.
In March of 1965, Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress, urging them to pass the Voting Rights Act. Known for his lumbering drawl, the president outdid himself with an historic, spell-binding address that moistened congressional members' eyes. The president blended stirring calls for justice with biblical passion for restoring human dignity. He intended to mend America's broken soul by introducing fairness into the voting booth. Johnson's legacy speech has come to be known as "The American Promise."
Supporting passage of the Voting Rights Act, Johnson didn't soften his tone or trim his challenge. He bore in: "Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation.
"The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we have failed as a people and as a nation. For, with a country as with a person, 'What does a man (person) profit if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his soul?" (Mark 8:36).
The Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which allows states to implement harsh voter registration restrictions is "a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act," laments Representative John Lewis, a celebrated civil rights marcher.
Renew the American Promise on this 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Don't bar citizens who can't afford a driver's license of their right to vote.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive.