With an African-American in the White House, it's easy to forget -- particularly if you're under 40 -- that just a few decades ago our laws kept hundreds of thousands of citizens of color from even exercising their right to vote.
And stunningly, history is repeating itself. In nearly three-dozen states, legislators this year considered and in some cases passed bills to roll back voting rights. They erected new barriers to voter registration and endorsed new requirements that prospective voters produce proof of citizenship and residency before casting ballots. Where the legislation failed, supporters have vowed to pursue it again in 2012.
All this is being done in the name of preventing "voter fraud," a problem that would be worth attacking if it was real but which all available evidence indicates is a myth. In state after state, claims that substantial numbers of people are voting twice, crossing state lines to vote illegally, voting under fictitious names or otherwise committing vote fraud have simply failed to stand up to scrutiny.
In fact, as Attorney General Eric Holder suggested in a speech on Tuesday, the push against voter fraud is mostly a partisan effort to depress minority voting. It's no coincidence that new registration and voter ID requirements are being introduced and supported mostly by Republicans and that they disproportionately impact working class African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as college students, groups that at least in recent elections have tended to prefer Democrats.
Holder's Texas speech included a plug for legislation introduced Wednesday by Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland Chuck Schumer of New York that would attack the real threat to the integrity of today's elections -- the proliferation of pre-election and Election Day stunts aimed at intimidating prospective voters or tricking them into staying away from the polls.
Just last week, a Maryland jury returned multiple felony convictions against a one-time aide to former Gov. Bob Ehrlich for his role in a robocall campaign that tried to steer more than 100,000 Marylanders away from voting in last year's contest between Ehrlich and Democrat Martin O'Malley. The Cardin-Schumer bill would give federal prosecutors an important tool to attack such shenanigans in elections for President and Congress.
On a personal note, I was particularly impressed that Holder chose to deliver his speech at Lyndon Johnson's presidential library in Texas. The former president was the godfather of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which put an end to the poll taxes, literacy tests and other tools Texas and other southern states had used for generations to suppress minority voting.
Johnson knew his stance would earn him the everlasting enmity of a majority of his fellow Texans; nevertheless he pressed on. If Holder keeps Tuesday's promise to use the Voting Rights Act to closely scrutinize the new wave of voter suppression laws and defend voting rights, he will prove himself a worthy heir to that admirable slice of the Johnson legacy.