Protecting The Right To Vote

Last month, Dorothy Cooper, a 96-year-old African-American woman from Chattanooga, Tennessee, went to the ballot box to vote. Dorothy was born before women had the right to vote and when Jim Crow laws kept most African-Americans disenfranchised. Despite this, Dorothy has not missed a single election since 1960. Like many seniors, Dorothy has a Social Security card, a local photo ID issued by the Chattanooga Police Department—and a voter registration card.

Dorothy also has a rent receipt, a copy of her lease, and birth certificate. But a new Tennessee law requires all voters to have a valid state-issued voter ID in order to vote in the 2012 election. Because Dorothy took her husband’s name at marriage, the state will not accept her birth certificate (or any of her other forms of identification). And because Dorothy doesn’t have her marriage certificate, having been married decades ago, the state of Tennessee prohibits her from obtaining the ID needed to vote.

Dorothy is not alone.  In Indiana, 12 nuns were denied the right to vote in the last presidential election because they didn’t have “updated” identification. The facts that some of them had old passports, they were in their 80s and 90s and didn’t drive–or that they’re nuns–seemed not to be a good basis for affirming their identities.  

These are not isolated incidents. They are part of the largest effort to disenfranchise voters since the Jim Crow era, almost exclusively targeting youth and minority voters.. A recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice estimates that the Republican effort could make it harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.  

This year, thirty-four state legislatures introduced bills requiring photo identification in order to vote. This rash of legislation classifies several previously accepted IDs as unacceptable, and will affect roughly 21 million Americans if they are passed.  For the first time in our nation’s history, we would shrink the voting franchise instead of expanding it.  

These are solutions in search of a problem. Statistics show an infinitesimal number of proven voting fraud cases occurring in the United States. And these few cases have been successfully prosecuted like any other criminal offense.

Groups promoting these laws, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), argue there’s rampant voter fraud.  Oddly enough this “fraud” seems to be occurring only within historically Democratic voting blocs like minorities and students. Yet ALEC and others have no problem squashing these groups’ voting rights–or the rights of elderly voters.  Routinely issued student IDs won’t be accepted in some states–including my home state of Minnesota.  The elderly, non-drivers, and millions of others will have to get identification. This sounds like a simple process, but imagine an 80 year old grandmother who has never driven and uses a wheelchair going through the process of getting non-drivers ID. If her social security card is accepted identification for her benefits,  why isn’t it good enough to identify her for voting?

For these reasons, I am introducing two bills today to curb voter suppression. The Same Day Registration Act would require states to provide for same day voter registration for a federal election. The Voter Access Protection Act would make sure election officials cannot require photo identification in order to cast a vote or register to vote.

Eligible voters deserve access to the polls. By passing these bills, we can ensure our nation lives up to its ideals and protect the most fundamental right in our democracy.


Rep. Keith Ellison is a Minnesota congressman and a co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus.

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