The fires that burn inside of me to protect our vote are personal, as well as social.
My great, great grandfather, Mr. Scipio Rhame, was born a slave. Yet, during Reconstruction — just 3 years after his slavery ended — he had the determination to be among the first of our people to register and vote in the 2nd Precinct of Manning, Clarendon County, South Carolina.
I still marvel at his courage back in 1868 despite the reactions and personal danger he must have faced. It makes me proud to share his blood – and humbled that so many risked their lives so that we could be full citizens of what now is the greatest nation in the world.
Yet, my reaction to election fraud and deception is grounded is something far more compelling than my own feelings. Voter intimidation, voter suppression, dirty tricks and fraud are cancers that threaten the very life of our democratic republic.
More than 144 years after Scipio Rhame risked reprisal so that his descendants could have better lives, attempts to cheat us out of our franchise continue to be a clear and present danger to our community.
Our first line of defense is to know our rights.
WE HAVE THE RIGHT to vote by provisional ballot if for any reason we are not able to vote on the regular voting machines; to vote without showing identification unless we are a first-time voter who did not show ID when we registered; and to assistance at the polls if we have a physical disability or an inability to read the English language.
WE HAVE THE RIGHT to vote early at any of the Early Voting Centers; to Vote-By-Mail for any reason; and to take time off from work to vote.
WE HAVE THE RIGHT to have our polling place open promptly at 7:00 a.m.; to vote on the regular voting machines if we are in line at our polling place by 8:00 p.m.; and to vote without being approached or solicited within 100 feet of our polling place.
Yet, we also must be on our guard.
I will never forget Election Day 2002. I arrived at my local voting place and was preparing to vote in the governor's race. As I walked toward the school, they handed me this big, beautiful, glossy piece of literature – better than any brochure that I had ever produced.
I said to myself, “Boy, this is a wonderful photo. There’s my pastor and Mel Martinez and Tony Fulton and me.”
Then, I saw Robert Ehrlich in the picture with us and the words, “Democrats for Ehrlich.”
That campaign literature was a lie. Even today, I cannot fully express the anger that I felt because of that trickery.
I had been one the biggest supporters of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Republican Bob Ehrlich’s Democratic opponent in that 2002 election. When I discovered the fraud, I immediately went on the radio and television to set my neighbors straight and publicly denounced the dirty trick that the Ehrlich campaign was trying to play on our community.
In 2006, Bob Ehrlich’s campaign for governor and Michael Steele's campaign for Senate bused homeless people from Philadelphia on Election Day to distribute fliers that were designed to trick African-American Democratic voters into voting for them by falsely suggesting that they were backed by prominent African-American leaders.
Then, in 2010, operatives working with Bob Ehrlich's campaign for governor placed robo-calls to voters in predominately African-American precincts in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, encouraging voters to “relax" and “stay home.”
That Election Day, however, we were prepared to defend our most precious civil right. The deception failed, and those responsible were convicted in court.
Now, in 2012, a group called Election Integrity Maryland (affiliated with the Tea Party group, “True the Vote”) is training poll watchers to challenge legitimate voters on Election Day.
True the Vote has a record of filing inaccurate voter registration challenges across the country.
This year, however, as in 2010, we are ready for them.
Our “Voter Protection” effort will counter any blatant deception and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Once again, Attorney Amanda LaForge and a committed army of Maryland lawyers will protect our right to vote and have our votes counted on Election Day, Nov. 6.
Voters will also be able to call a toll-free Voter Empowerment Hotline 1-888-678-VOTE (8683) for help if the need arises.
Our ability to vote for leaders we trust is what Scipio Rhame must have had in mind when he registered and voted back in 1868. Now, it is 2012, and this is our watch.
We will protect our voters because it is the right thing to do – the American thing to do.
We shall not fail.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives