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Fundamental Injustice: Voter Suppression Threatens Democracy

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
Georgeanne M. Usova,
Former Senior Legislative Counsel
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September 9, 2011

Sen. Dick Durbin calls the recent rash of state voter suppression efforts, “a threat to our democracy.” Yesterday he held a hearing on this disturbing trend at which the ACLU submitted a statement for the record.

In recent months, state legislatures across the nation have erected new barriers to the ballot through the passage of a range of highly restrictive voter suppression laws. Regressive measures were introduced in more than 30 states, and thirteen states proceeded to adopt new or expanded barriers to voting.

The newly passed state laws take many different forms, but all have the same result: to undermine our democracy by restricting access to the vote, a right protected by more constitutional amendments than any other. States are chipping away at this core American franchise with laws that require voters to present specific types of photo identification at the polls, make it more difficult to register or conduct registration drives prior to elections, reduce the opportunity for early voting, and disfranchise more citizens with past criminal convictions. These highly restrictive measures make it harder for citizens to get registered and to cast a ballot unless, for example, they have the resources to obtain government identification or to take time off from work to vote during certain hours on Election Day. This is particularly harmful to people with disabilities, people of color, low-income families, students, and senior citizens.

Troublingly, all of these measures have been enacted in the name of reducing fraud — even though there is scant evidence that voter fraud occurs at all, in spite of intensive efforts by the Bush administration’s Department of Justice and others to uncover such evidence. As Rep. Charles Gonzales put it at yesterday’s hearing, “Despite repeated claims, there are no cases of voter fraud that would be stopped by voter ID laws. The fact is, voter ID laws don’t stop fraud, they just suppress voting.” No wonder both Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who also testified at the hearing, called these laws “a solution in search of a problem.” And while there is no evidence to support this phantom scourge of voter fraud, there is no question that these laws do serve to disfranchise many real voters — with real names and faces.

As Rep. Cleaver also noted at yesterday’s hearing, it is regrettable that “as the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial was recently unveiled in our nation’s capital … we are still fighting the battle to protect the right to vote — one of the causes Dr. King died for.” As we reflect on that cause, we should aim to enact laws that encourage all citizens to exercise their right to participate in our democracy, not exclude them from it. And we must do this by ensuring that every eligible citizen is able to register, cast a ballot, and have that ballot counted.

The ACLU is urging the Department of Justice (DOJ) to examine laws in states that are turning back the clock on our fundamental right to vote and to ensure that these laws comply with the Voting Rights Act. You can help by telling Attorney General Holder to fully enforce federal laws and protect every citizen’s right to vote.

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