Commentary: The Country Finally Focuses on Voting Rights Protection

Commentary: The Country Finally Focuses on Voting Rights Protection

In South Carolina, the nation's attention is focused on the Republican primary, but the call for voting rights is gaining steam.

Published January 19, 2012

(Photo: Robin Marchant/WireImage)

At the moment, the South Carolina Republican primary is essentially ground zero for the nation’s political attention, with nonstop coverage of the candidates. The coverage has been incessant, featuring everything from Rick Perry’s withdrawal from the race to the impact on the campaign of the revelations by Newt Gingrich’s second wife.

Thanks to a determined group of progressive Americans, a growing level of media and public attention is being paid to a different aspect of the South Carolina experience: Protecting the voting rights of all of the citizens in that state. It is heartening that the nation’s attention is finally being turned to relentless, conservative Republican efforts to deprive American citizens of their right to vote.

The Republican-led legislature in South Carolina enacted a new law that requires voters in the state to present photo identification. It’s a law that would disproportionately diminish the turnout among students, the elderly and African-American voters. And it was signed into law by the state’s governor, Nikki Haley, before being rejected by the United States Department of Justice.

The South Carolina experience is not an aberration. In state after state, Republican legislators and governors are increasingly — and successfully — working to suppress the votes of Americans who are expected to be crucial to the Democratic vote. It is one of the most significant and effective assaults on the rights of voters — particularly in the African-American community — since the end of Reconstruction in the 19th Century.

They claim that they are guided by a desire to curtail voter fraud. However, even Republican-sponsored research indicates that the likelihood of a voter being prosecuted for fraud is slightly lower than that of an American being struck by lightning. The Republican champions of these laws claim that they are seeking to solve a problem. But it’s a problem that simply doesn’t exist.

In this last week, while the Republican candidates were traveling throughout South Carolina, many of them defending the voter suppression initiatives, there were, thankfully, other forces at work. It started on the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday, when thousands of citizens — average, concerned Americans — gathered at a rally to condemn the voter identification law that is now on the books in South Carolina.

Particularly outspoken on the topic have been NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and United States Attorney General Eric Holder, who a month ago led the Justice Department to block the voter identification law. Not only did Holder use the power of his office, but he also spoke powerfully about the issue.

“The right to vote is not only the cornerstone of our governance, it is the lifeblood of our democracy,” Holder said, speaking to South Carolina's opponents of the new law. “And no force has proved more powerful, or more integral to the success of the great American experiment, than efforts to expand the franchise.”

Holder added, “Let me be very, very clear — the arc of American history has bent toward the inclusion, not the exclusion, of more of our fellow citizens in the electoral process. We must ensure that this continues.”

It is time for more of the country to awaken to the fact that this assault on voting rights is real, it’s effective and, more than anything, it’s fueled by Republican passion to retire Barack Obama from the presidency. And it’s time for Americans to do everything in their power to ensure, no matter the agenda of the conservative right, that the rights guaranteed to all Americans are protected — at all costs.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


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Written by Jonathan P. Hicks

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