This Black History Month, Remember the Past and Change the Future

Why in 2012 are we returning to the days of limiting the vote rather than encouraging it? How can we forget how far we've come as a nation?
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As we observe Black History Month, there is no better time to stop and recognize that the struggle of many Americans to exercise their right to vote is not confined to the past. A disturbing new chapter of that struggle is playing out now. In 1870, African-Americans were given the right to vote through the 15th amendment, yet for nearly 90 years, many were prevented from exercising this very right. Voter qualifying tests, dis criminatory enforcement of registration rules, poll taxes, and outright racial gerrymandering were just some of the devices standing between African-Americans and their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote.

Fast forward to now. In October of last year, the state of Tennessee denied Dorothy Cooper, a 96-year-old African-American, the voter ID she is now required to produce to vote at her polling place. They cited her inability to produce her marriage certificate. Ms. Cooper has voted in every election but one since she became eligible to vote, including many during the Jim Crow Era. In the last year, we've seen 34 states propose or pass voter ID bills; twenty-five percent of African-Americans do not possess an ID these states have established as acceptable. We've seen 19 laws passed that restrict access to voting by shortening early and absentee voting periods, eliminating same-day voter registration and limiting registration processes, as well as making it harder to restore voting rights to citizens with past felony convictions. Republican legislatures have attempted to eliminate Sunday voting entirely, because historically this is a common day for minority voters to cast their ballot. In 2008, in Florida, 33 percent of black voters took advantage of voting on the Sunday before Election Day. Twenty-three percent of Hispanic voters did the same. These new laws could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million people to vote in 2012. The excuse provided by many Republicans is that they are attempting to weed out fraud, but it doesn't hold up. In 2004, Ohio had a fraud rate of 0.00004 percent, that's four fraudulent votes of the 9,078,728 votes cast.

These laws are designed to restrict a specific population from voting, much like what we saw in the 1950s and 60s. These covert tactics will not prevail as long as we continue to speak out against the injustice of voter suppression laws. The work of those who came before us cannot be forgotten. In 1965, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. led the Selma March that focused Americans' attention on the unconscionable inequity that existed in our voting system. He moved President Lyndon Johnson to work with Congress to achieve a quick passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When the act was passed, African-American voter registration drives were met with extreme, sometimes violent, resistance. But we persevered, and registered in large numbers.

Why in 2012 are we returning to the days of limiting the vote rather than encouraging it? How can we forget how far we've come as a nation? In March of 1913, twenty-two founders of Delta Sigma Theta marched on Washington to demand the right to vote for women across this nation. They knew that the right to vote was essential to allow them to receive an education equal to that of a man, and to allow black women opportunities in government, in politics, and in leadership roles within our society. Many members of Delta played a critical role in the Civil Rights Movement and the signing of the Voting Rights Act: Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, Dorothy Height, Frankie Muse Freeman, and Fannie Lou Hamer. These women paved the way for Deltas who followed them, including Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Lois DeBerry, Laura Hall, Lottie Shackelford, Elaine Jones, Alexis Herman, and me. It was the activism of our founders that fueled a fire in the hearts of Deltas, and it still burns strong today. Deltas continue to fight for the right of every American to vote; over a thousand of my sorority sisters were in Washington recently to advocate for voting rights and civil rights on Capitol Hill.

I urge all Americans to join me in asking every governor, and every state legislature that passed suppressive voting laws, to do the right thing. For African-Americans and women, they should do the right thing. Encourage them to repeal suppressive laws that keep eligible Americans from voting and prevent future action that discourages voting. Let's make certain every American has the right to participate in our democracy.

Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge represents Ohio's 11th district in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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