We are witnessing the greatest assault on democracy in over a century. Millions of Black Americans will head to the polls one year from now and realize their right to vote is under siege.

On the heels of the 2008 election and unprecedented turnout in the Black community, right wing lawmakers seized control of state legislatures in 2010 and adopted legislation that would disproportionately restrict the votes of African Americans, Latinos, the young, the elderly and the disabled – those who comprise the strongest parts of the Democratic base. A film by Brave New Foundation released this week highlights how the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative advocacy group supported by the billionaire Koch brothers, developed and distributed model voter suppression legislation subsequently introduced in 34 states. The most pernicious part of the new legislation is a measure requiring voters to present up-to-date state-issued photo ID to cast a ballot.

Born in 1926, Larry Butler of South Carolina has already felt the effects of his state’s new voter ID law. Butler was born at home during an era of strict segregation where African Americans did not have access to hospitals. Because he does not have an official birth certificate, he will have to pay $150 to get the underlying document he needs for voter ID his state now requires. A man of modest means, Butler will have to pay this substantial fee just to exercise his constitutionally guaranteed right to vote. Many in his state, however, will not. In fact, the Associated Press reported that South Carolina’s new law hits Black precincts the hardest.

Dorothy Cooper, 96, of Tennessee has a similar tale. Despite having a copy of her lease, a rental receipt, her voter registration card and her birth certificate, she was denied a voter ID because her birth certificate is in her maiden name and she can’t find her marriage license. Following widespread media attention and a public outcry she was granted a state photo ID, but millions of other voters will not be so fortunate next year.

Republican lawmakers introduced these new laws claiming they were necessary to prevent widespread fraud; but it is a rarity in the United States. In fact, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to find a prosecutable case of voter fraud. The Justice Department under George W. Bush found that out of 300,000,000 votes cast between 2002 and 2007, only 0.00003 percent was fraudulent. The cases they did find involved registration and eligibility laws, none of which could have been prevented by a state photo ID restriction.

The impact of these laws is alarming. Studies show that 11 percent of eligible voters, approximately 21 million people, don’t have up-to-date state-issued photo IDs: 25 percent of African Americans, 15 percent of those earning less than $35,000, 20 percent of voters age 18 to 29, and 18 percent of citizens age 65 or older. These groups are the least wealthy and the least powerful. They are also the least likely to vote in the interests of the rich.

We are fighting back against this assault. Thanks to diligent efforts by progressive forces, governors in Montana, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina and New Hampshire vetoed photo ID laws. We are launching a petition drive to call upon the Justice Department to deny approval under the Voting Rights Act of discriminatory photo ID laws in South Carolina and Texas. Advancement Project and its partners are leading a lawsuit challenging a photo ID amendment to Missouri’s constitution.

However, in states like Wisconsin, Kansas and Tennessee, where these laws have passed, implementation is underway. And, there is nothing to prevent states that did not pass photo ID proposals in 2011 from reintroducing them in 2012.

A dangerous force is using the spate of new voter suppression laws to roll back the clock to the days of poll taxes, literacy tests and disenfranchisement thereby relegating millions to second class citizenship. From bloody confrontations at the polls to marches and protests in Alabama, the road to equal voting rights for people of color has not been easy. But the very fabric of America rests in her promise that regardless of whether we are black or white, young or old, rich or poor, we each have an equal voice in determining the shape of our government. We must raise our voices forcefully today as we have done many times before in pursuit of that promise or suffer the grave consequences of being silenced.

{Judith Browne-Dianis is co-director of the Advancement Project, a policy, communications and legal action group committed to racial justice. It was founded in 1999 by a team of veteran civil rights lawyers.


Judith Browne-Dianis