On Jan. 21, Barack Obama will place his hand on the Bible and take the oath of office for his second term as our President. For most Americans, it will be a moment of celebration.
A growing, multi-ethnic coalition, dedicated to progress and greater equity in our society, rose up to overcome a massive effort by the President’s enemies to steal the presidency through voter suppression and deceit.
The President’s opponents were so confident that they had disenfranchised enough of us – or sufficiently deterred us by long lines at our voting booths – that Barack Obama’s victory stunned them into momentary incoherence.
I would have smiled at their befuddlement had I not realized that struggle for government of, by and for all Americans is not over.
Indeed, our 21st century civil rights movement to expand and preserve the voting rights of our new majority has just begun.
As outlined in Voting Law Changes: Election Update produced last year by The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law [http://www.brennancenter.org], Republican-dominated state legislatures in 19 states adopted 25 new, more restrictive voting laws in 2011 and 2012. These states represented 231 electoral votes [85 percent of the total needed to win the presidency].
The Brennan Center’s legal analysts concluded that these onerous “Voter ID” laws, restrictions upon voter registration drives, purges of registered voters and limitations on early voting “amounted to the biggest threat to voting rights in decades.”
I would have to agree.
Led by the civil rights legend, Rep. John Lewis, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, we Democrats in the last Congress fashioned a response that would have substantially overruled the worst of these anti-democratic state laws, while Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison proposed federal legislation that would have outlawed the state Voter ID requirements.
Republican control of the House of Representatives prevented either of these reform bills from making it out of committee. However, national outrage, swift action by the U.S. Department of Justice, and decisions by federal and state courts prevented these politically-motivated voter suppression laws from denying President Obama the second term that he had earned.
It was our victory as well.
Progressive Americans of every ethnic background fought for our right to vote, enduring hardships at our election registrars and polls. In so doing, we made a clear and unmistakable statement of our commitment to our most fundamental constitutional right.
“We are the emerging majority in this Democratic Republic,” we proclaimed, “and we will be invisible no more.”
We have earned the right to be joyful on Inauguration Day. Yet, the struggle to defend and perfect our voting rights continues.
As the Brennan Center correctly observes, reactionary legislators will continue their schemes to limit the voting power of America’s new multi-racial majority. Courts will be compelled to examine and rule upon restrictive laws in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
The U.S. Supreme Court will be presented with challenges to the legal protections that voters have fought so hard to achieve, including an Arizona challenge and another attack upon Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
In a more hopeful vein, Democrats in the new 113th Congress will re-introduce and fight for Rep. Lewis’ Voter Empowerment Act that I was so proud to co-sponsor in the 112th Congress [HR 5799].
Starting with a public forum that I am holding this week in Prince William County, Va., we will bring together voting rights experts (like the Brennan Center and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law) with voters who faced long lines and unforgivable hardships in heavily minority precincts on Election Day 2012.
The story of their experience and a vision of what we need to do to improve the integrity of our election system will be documented for the Congress and the American people at http://democrats.oversight.house.gov/.
We must remind those who, explicitly or implicitly, have supported voter suppression that Americans are better than this.
We in the Congress have a constitutional duty to reform our election laws. As citizens, we all have a comparable duty (and interest) to assure that every American is registered to vote in 2014.
We should live up to the determination and courage of an elderly woman I met at our polling place last November. Anyone who wishes can hear my reflections about that inspiring meeting on the Internet at http://www.storyofamerica.org/polling_station — but, for now, I will share this.
The lady (close to 90 years of age, barely able to walk, and knowing that she may have been voting for the last time in her life) was brimming with pride. Yet, as I listened to her thoughts, I knew she would have faced great difficulties voting in states like Pennsylvania had the imposition of its strict Voter ID law not been delayed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Like so many of our senior citizens, this wonderful woman must have felt that she had been running in a marathon – and now, she wanted to pass on the baton to the next generation.
We are that generation, and I believe that what she would tell us is this:
“Don’t drop the baton.”
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.