Four decades after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many Americans are once again in danger of being disenfranchised. I remember marching from Selma to Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights leaders to stand up for everyone's rights to vote and to pursue the American Dream. Later, as a lawyer and a U.S. Representative, I have fought to ensure the integrity and reliability of the democratic process that we as a country hold so dear — because shrinking the electorate has no place in America.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one of the most vital pieces of legislation in our democracy. Yet in 2011, 34 Republican-controlled state legislatures have either passed or are pushing for restrictive voting laws under the mask of preventing voter fraud. In actuality, these laws will negatively impact five million Americans, especially minorities and low-income groups. Eight states are already requiring photo government-issued identification at the polls even though 11 percent of Americans do not possess identification due to low income or previous lack of legal obligation. Three states — Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee — even require proof of citizenship, even though many rural, elderly and Native Americans citizens did not have to obtain birth certificates. These restrictions are far too reminiscent of the poll taxes and literacy tests from a darker period in our nation's history.
Some states have even cut back early voting and voter registration. Florida, one of the most important battleground states, has decreased the early voting period with major implications. In 2008, 33 percent of early voters were African-Americans (only 11 percent of the population) and 24 percent were Hispanic (only 16 percent of the population). Voter registration drives that historically register minorities in high numbers are also becoming more difficult for organizations and volunteers.
Immigrant communities in particular are at risk of being blocked from the polls by the manipulation of voting laws by state governments. It is an outrage that Hispanics, one of the fastest growing populations in America, are being denied a voice. Hispanics now comprise almost half of the residents in my district, so I have seen firsthand the great contributions they make to our country. For them to be fairly represented in our democracy, we must begin with comprehensive immigration reform that allows a pathway to citizenship, and eventually the right to vote.
The prospect of electing the first African-American president in the 2008 election compelled a historic number of Americans to go to the polls. The inherent motive behind changing existing voter laws is a regression of our civil and human rights that we fought so hard over many generations to amend and perfect within our Constitution. Every single American, regardless of race, gender, faith or wealth, must be entitled the opportunity to participate in the democratic franchise if we as a country are to fully and accurately express our collective decisions. Elections should represent America as whole, complete with civil liberties for all.
In 1965, what started out as a march turned into a movement that ultimately cemented our fundamental right to vote, which we must continue to invoke in our present day. On Dec. 10, 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Day, I will proudly participate in the Stand for Freedom demonstration, led by the NAACP and SEIU, in which we will march, once again, to stand for justice and equality. In front of the United Nations, we will reassert our country as the beacon of democracy, protecting the sanctity of voting for every American.
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel is a congressman from New York City.
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