As Republicans gather in a noisy, made-for-television convention designed to promote their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, principled citizens in Pennsylvania and other “Voter ID” states are quietly working to overcome the latest assault upon our fundamental right to vote.
I offer this contrast for your consideration some 47 years after Aug. 6, 1965, that historic day when Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and others joined President Lyndon Johnson at the White House as he signed the national Voting Rights Act into law.
I preface these thoughts with the observation that there is scant factual evidence for the Republicans’ claim that official picture identification cards are needed or effective to prevent “voter fraud.”
To the contrary, what the evidence does show is that fraudulent voting is rare. Reports indicate that only four cases of voting fraud have been documented in Pennsylvania since 2004.
This near-nonexistence of voting fraud is why our own state of Maryland stands up for the principles of the Voting Rights Act by allowing residents to register to vote with any reasonable supporting evidence – such as a recent utility bill or bank statement showing your name and address.
Maryland even reaches out to prospective voters, allowing us to register to vote “on line” at http://www.elections.state.md.us/.
In contrast, Pennsylvania Republicans have succeeded in requiring that their citizens present “official” photo identification in order to vote. Although the “official” photo id cards may be free, the documentation demanded for issuance, like birth certificates or marriage licenses, can often be difficult and costly to obtain.
This is why, whatever the proponents of “Voter ID” may claim, I believe that these laws are the “poll taxes” of our time, calculated to suppress the votes of the aged, young and poor – all key supporters of President Obama in 2008.
Consider, for example, the plight of Ms. Marsha Ellis, age 56, who was born in South Carolina but has lived in Philadelphia for most of her life. Ms. Ellis has been told by the county health department in South Carolina that it has no record of her birth.
Consider, also, the challenge faced by 83-year-old Ms. Marian Berkley, who has managed to find her Delaware birth certificate but, at last report, was still searching for her marriage certificate so that she can prove that her last name was legally changed at that time.
Their situations make it clear that requiring elderly voters, the poor, minorities and students to present photo identification cards that they do not now possess could prevent many Americans from voting in November. For some Pennsylvania Republicans, at least, this appears to have been their primary goal in pushing the Pennsylvania Voter ID Law’s enactment.
Pennsylvania’s Republican House Leader Mike Turzai candidly acknowledged as much during a convention of that state’s Republicans earlier this year. “Voter ID,” he declared, “which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania – done.”
Understandably, Pennsylvanians of every political viewpoint, faith tradition and ethnic background have been appalled by the Republican leader’s comment. In the true American spirit of the Voting Rights Act, they believe that Pennsylvania’s electoral votes should be determined by all the citizens of their state.
The Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, spearheaded by Philadelphia area faith leaders and non-profit, non-partisan civic groups like The Committee of Seventy, now includes more than 150 organizations. The Coalition’s churches and other volunteers are helping Pennsylvania citizens in their struggle to comply with this onerous new law.
Those wishing more information – or who wish to volunteer or otherwise contribute to this critical civil rights initiative – can contact the non-partisan Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition at (215) 848-1283 or visit the Committee of Seventy website: http://www.seventy.org.
Here in Baltimore, a second front in our struggle to assure that all Pennsylvania citizens can vote and have their votes counted is being organized by President Obama’s supporters. Anyone interested can send an email to Balt4Obama@gmail.com or call (443) 814-9512.
We all have a personal interest in assuring that these voting rights efforts succeed.
Voter suppression cannot be tolerated in our America – whether asserted in 1965 by tear gas and clubs on Selma, Ala.’s Edmund Pettus Bridge or attempted in Pennsylvania currently with the stroke of the legislative pen.
The anti-democratic objective is the same.
It is time, once again, for people of conscience to march–although the means by which we advance our democracy today may be volunteer hours at a phone bank or contributions to a voter registration and support drive like that underway in our sister state to the north.
Voter identification laws are nothing more than a grab for power. Yet, as Dr. King once reminded us, “there is nothing more powerful than the rhythm of marching feet.”
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives.