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Montgomery Advertiser - Fight Brews Over Voter ID

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Location: Washington, DC

Rep. Terri Sewell is angry that Alabama wants registered voters such as her wheelchair-bound father to show a photo ID before casting a ballot.

The Birmingham Democrat, Alabama's only black member of Congress, said her 77-year-old father doesn't have photo ID since he let his driver's license expire years ago.

If the state's law takes effect as scheduled in 2014, thousands of elderly, disabled and minority Alabama voters will either stay home each election day or will have to make "extraordinary efforts" to get a driver's license, passport or other form of identification, Sewell said.

Thirty states have adopted voter ID laws, some of which date back more than a decade, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Four states that recently tightened existing laws to require a photo ID -- Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas -- have a history of electoral discrimination against minorities and must obtain approval from either the Justice Department or a federal court before the changes can take effect.

Alabama has yet to submit its law for approval.

Sewell said the laws "are true threats to silence the voices of those least heard."

"In this district, where people marched and people bled and died … we should be doing everything we can to encourage and promote and protect voting," she said. "Growing up in Selma, I am particularly aware of the importance and the sacrifices that were made for the right for folks to vote."

Civil Rights Concerns

Fighting the state election laws conjures up painful memories of the civil rights movement's early days, say black lawmakers and civil rights activists whose efforts in the 1950s and 1960s led to landmark legislation to protect blacks' right to vote.

One of those activists is Sybil Morial of New Orleans, who once helped elderly blacks in Louisiana learn the preamble to the Constitution. That was one of the many requirements she said state officials used as roadblocks decades ago to prevent blacks from voting.

"We were jubilant when the (1965) Voting Rights Act was passed,'' Morial recalled. "Now, 50 years later, we're having to face the same thing … They're trying to erode our voting rights again.''

Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, another vet- eran of the civil rights movement's early years, said he's dismayed by recent court decisions that he says chip away at some of the movement's most significant victories.

One of those is a 2008 Supreme Court decision upholding Indiana's law requiring voters to show a photo ID. Several states have modeled election laws after the Indiana measure.

"What's to say the next Supreme Court decision dealing with the Voting Rights Act won't cut it back even more, and you keep going in that direction until (the act) will be completely neutered,'' Clyburn said.

Attempts to Counter Changes

To counter those court decisions and the new state election laws, Democrats introduced a bill earlier this year that would allow for same-day registration, create a national voter hotline to report problems, require provisional ballots at all polling sites and make it a crime to give misleading election information, such as incorrect polling sites.

Clyburn, the assistant Democratic leader in the House, said the legislation stands little chance of passing in the Republican-controlled House.

The Justice Department has rejected new photo ID laws passed by South Carolina and Texas. Both states have sued the department in federal court.

Alabama voters can show a non-photo ID to cast a ballot in this year's election. But if the new, stricter law is approved, voters will have to show a driver's license, passport, military ID or some other pre-approved form of ID beginning in 2014.

Some states have adopted election laws that go beyond voter ID requirements, such as cutting back on early voting and restricting the activities of third-party groups that register new voters.

Opponents say all these laws will disproportionately impact blacks, the elderly and the poor -- who are more likely to vote Democratic -- because they're less likely to have government-issued photo IDs. Those groups also tend to take advantage of early voting and rely on third-party registration, civil rights groups say.

Laws Protect Against Fraud

Supporters of the laws counter that they protect against voter fraud.

They deny that the laws violate minorities' civil rights and dismiss comparisons between the violent tactics used against blacks during the 1960s civil rights movement and today's fight over state election rights laws.

Artur Davis, a black former congressman who used to represent two iconic centers of the civil rights movement in Alabama -- Selma and Birmingham -- dismissed comparisons between state photo-ID laws and voter-suppression methods used in the 1960s.

"It's not some kind of a weapon or club that southern sheriffs used to use to keep people from voting or participating," said Davis, who has switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican and has moved to Virginia, where he is thinking of running for office.

Lawrence Guyot, a native of Pass Christian, Miss., and a former field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi, takes a different view.

He compares the new election laws to Mississippi's "policy of apartheid'' in the 1960s, when he and other activists attempted to register blacks to vote.

Guyot called today's new laws an "absolute assault on the right to vote.''

"We're clearly fighting the fight again, but the fight is worth fighting,'' Guyot said. "Everything that I've ever fought for, everything that I felt that we've gained is up for grabs now.''


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