On Democracy: Silencing the Rising American Electorate

Unless we take steps to protect and expand the right to vote, we will be silenced at the polls.

Posted: 05/10/2013 08:15 AM EDT

“A man without a vote is a man without protection.” – President Lyndon B. Johnson

The battle for voting rights rages on. After the 2012 election, political pundits celebrated high participation among African-American, Latino and youth voters. But despite heavy turnout by eligible voters, the fact remains that millions of voters were still denied access to the ballot box because of voter suppression measures. These measures included strict voter ID requirements, voter intimidation at the polls, cuts to early voting and long existing voter suppression laws, such as felony disenfranchisement. And this year, even more lawmakers are trying to suppress the vote.

The consequences of successful efforts to suppress voting rights are dire for communities of color.  With the United States projected to become a “majority-minority” nation for the first time in 2043, civic engagement in Black, brown and youth communities has never been more important. But without full and unfettered access to the ballot box, this rising electorate’s ability to fully participate in our democracy will be at stake.

While advocates for voting rights won several battles last year, voter suppression efforts show no signs of letting up. Already in 2013, extremist lawmakers have introduced at least 80 voter suppression bills across the United States targeting growing demographics who traditionally embrace progressive policies. For example, the North Carolina Senate recently introduced Senate Bill 666 – no pun intended – which targets college-aged voters. The bill eliminates dependent tax exemptions for North Carolina parents whose children choose to vote in their school's district instead of their parent's on Election Day.

If enacted, these laws will further restrict voter turnout and impact the outcome of future elections, especially in the upcoming 2014 midterm elections. That November, thirty-six governorships, 468 seats in Congress, 46 state legislatures and several state and local races will be up for a vote. All of these elections will have an impact on the everyday lives of millions of citizens. And at any point in time when one citizen is denied the ability to cast a vote, our democracy suffers.

In order to defend our democracy, we need to continue to combat voter suppression efforts on the local, state and national levels. Constituents must put pressure on their state legislatures to defeat bills that suppress voting rights and introduce bills that expand rights. Citizens must continue to engage local leaders and community members by writing letters to the editor on key stories related to voting rights, keeping the dialogue alive and educating neighbors on new laws that could impact them before and on Election Day.

Without immediate action to protect voting rights, America faces a future in which voter suppression could stymie the political voice of its fastest growing voter base. Unless we take steps to protect and expand the right to vote, the rising American electorate will be strong in numbers but silenced at the polls.

Jotaka L. Eaddy is the senior advisor to the president and CEO and senior director for voting rights for the NAACP. You can follow Jotaka for more commentary and updates at @JotakaEaddy, #OnDemocracy.  To stay up to date on alerts and events by the NAACP Voting Rights Initiative text “vote” to 62227and follow our fight against felony disenfranchisement on restorethevotes.org.

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

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