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Don't Shrink Our Democracy

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December 8, 2011

“The right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government.” — Chief Justice Earl Warren in Reynolds v. Sims

This Saturday, December 10, the American Civil Liberties Union, along with our friends at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and many others, will march in the streets of New York City in support of our most fundamental American right of all — the right to vote. And next week, Attorney General Eric Holder will address the nation from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s library in Austin, Texas about the sanctity of voting rights in America.

The power to choose who governs is one of the most dignified rights we share. When we vote, we are convening a national dialogue through which we decide our individual and collective futures. Yet throughout our history, we have excluded indispensable voices from this conversation. With great passion and intensity, African-Americans, women, and young people risked their lives for and eventually gained the right to vote.

Once the initial barriers were lifted and we enshrined the expansion of this right in the Constitution, the powerful desire to exclude took on more insidious forms — poll taxes and literacy tests, coupled with grandfather clauses — all to eliminate “undesirable” voices. We saw those tactics for what they were and defeated them, too.

But the battle over whose voices may be heard continues to today, only more sophisticated in its obfuscation. Some may readily believe that everyone owns a government-issued picture ID or that you should expend the effort and resources to obtain one if you truly were interested in voting or cared about our country. Others may believe that limiting voting opportunities to a 12-hour window in the middle of a work week is not an imposition on this seminal right.

But make no mistake — those behind these regressive laws know what they’re doing; once you start digging even an inch beneath the surface, the suppressive effects of a purportedly innocuous law become breathtakingly clear. Voters throughout the country are forced to choose between putting food on the table and purchasing the “right” form of identification. A homeless man in Tennessee finally obtained his “free” photo ID, but only upon the intervention of a Congressional aide. As a result of these devastating laws, we are diminished as a nation and as people.

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We do not have to accept the status quo. Come march with us this Saturday.

And finally, tell the Department of Justice and Attorney General Holder that we will not accept a country that discriminates against those who want a stake in this nation’s future.

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