This week, as I was preparing to speak at “One Year Out,” a kickoff rally for President Obama’s reelection campaign in Maryland, I could not help but recall my extraordinary privilege, four years ago, of leading then Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 Maryland Presidential Campaign. Yet, the most compelling image elevating my thinking was of another man — a largely unknown Black man who lived and paved the way for me more than a century ago.
Mr. Scippio Rhame was my paternal great great grandfather, a man of high expectations who lived near Manning, S.C. In 1868, after his slavery had ended, he registered to vote, enduring hardship and even danger in the process.
In a very real sense, no one gave Scippio Rhame his citizenship. He reached out and grasped it.
Today, I share this image of Scippio Rhame with my friends and neighbors because, even now, as Dr. King once famously asserted, all sorts of “conniving methods” are still being used to keep African Americans from voting.
In 2011, of course, we are not alone in bearing this burden — nor are we powerless to respond.
The outcry about the current attack on democracy has been voiced by commentators as diverse as the New York Times editorial page, the Washington Post, USA Today, and the NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.
In reaction to President Obama’s stunning 2008 election victory, conservative groups across the country are taking voter suppression schemes to a new and threatening level. Because of this danger — both clear and present — the 2012 presidential election will be a fight, not only for President Obama’s reelection, but for democracy itself.
Whatever may be advanced as the rationale for these anti-democratic measures, the conditions, restrictions and limitations imposed by Republican state legislatures appear to be specifically targeted at voters who registered and voted in large numbers for Barack Obama in 2008. As the Brennan Center and others have outlined, these reactionaries have enacted a legal blockade that seeks to pose new obstacles to voting by the elderly, the young, minorities, low-income voters and the disabled.
Readers can examine the full breadth of this attack on our voting power (“Voting Law Changes in 2012" on the Internet at www.brennancenter.org. It is clear, however, that Republican-dominated legislatures in Wisconsin, Maine, Ohio, Florida and Iowa (states that provided a combined 68 electoral votes for President Obama in 2008) have all enacted restrictive voter identification laws. Before this year, only two states, nationally, had ever imposed strict photo ID requirements as a precondition to voting.
Proponents of voter ID laws argue that the requirement to show a government issued ID is a necessary measure to prevent “voter fraud.” In truth, the photo ID laws are a fraud on America’s voters — and upon our nation’s democratic tradition.
As a highly respected attorney, Judith Browne Dianis (formerly with the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund and now co-director of the Advancement Project) has accurately observed, prosecutable cases of voter fraud are rare. Between 2002 and 2005, the U.S. Justice Department convicted only five people for voting multiple times.
It is also clear that voter ID laws disproportionately deny African Americans, Latinos, young voters, people over 65 and people with disabilities. As the Advancement Project has concluded, 25 percent of African Americans, 15 percent of those earning less than $35,000, 18 percent of the elderly and 20 percent of voters ages 18-29 do not currently have updated, state-issued photo IDs.
I will be doing everything within my power to reelect President Obama. Yet, even those who favor another candidate should be alarmed by this partisan attack upon our democratic system.
We must respond.
As I write, the new voter ID laws are the subject of litigation under the Voting Rights Act — and close scrutiny by the US Department of Justice. Between now and Election Day 2012, moreover, a major goal of President Obama’s reelection campaign will be to register every eligible voter and assure that they have the documentation that they need to have their eligibility to vote acknowledged at the polls.
In 1868 and 1965 everyday people like Scippio Rhame reached out and grasped the power that democracy offers to all of us. Today, we have the power to do the same.
Here in Maryland, each voter can easily check on the current status of our voter registration at home or a nearby public library by clicking on “Voter Information” at www.mdelections.umd.edu/. Each of us can — and should — help our neighbors do the same.
As citizens, we all have an important stake in the outcome of this struggle for democracy — a struggle that, for some of us, is as old as it is new.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.