Commentary: Dying for the right to vote

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramSeptember 8, 2012 


Bob Ray Sanders is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

ROSS HAILEY — MCT/Fort Worth Star-Telegram

In Sunday's column I told you the story of a voting box that may have been used in 1870, when Thomas Mundy Peterson became the first black man in the United States to cast a ballot after ratification of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution.

We've come a long way in 142 years, but unfortunately not far enough.

Through the dark years of Jim Crow rule, the agonizing battles of the civil rights movement and the constant struggle not to regress after passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the assault on that basic American right to vote has been persistent -- often disguised as more noble efforts, but discrimination all the same.

In recent years we've seen it in the form of voting intimidation, suppression and dilution of minority communities. Of late, methods of choice chosen by predominantly Republican-controlled legislatures and governors' office have been repressive voter ID laws and wickedly drawn redistricting maps.

On top of that, Texas and several other states are fighting to have Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act declared unconstitutional, which would end the requirement that states with a history of discrimination submit changes in their voting laws for pre-clearance by the Justice Department or federal judges.

Decisions last week by separate panels of federal appeals judges slapped down Texas' retrogressive voter ID law and the state's "discriminatory" redistricting maps for Congress and both houses of the Legislature. Coming within two days of each other, the findings of those judges suggest that Texas should remain one of the states that need oversight of its election process.

Take the voter ID law, for example, which the judges called "the most stringent in the nation."

The Texas law required registered voters to present at the polls one of the following documents bearing a photo: driver's license, identification card issued by the Department of Public Safety, U.S. military ID, U.S. citizenship certificate, U.S. passport or license to carry a concealed handgun issued by the DPS. A college student ID would not be acceptable.

Through the state's own documentation, the Justice Department was able to show that between 600,000 and 800,000 people registered to vote in Texas didn't have a driver's license, and that 81 counties in the state did not have a DPS office.

These facts didn't go unnoticed by the appeals judges. They pointed out that the people most affected under this law would be the poor, and that a great number of them are black or Hispanic.

Concerning the lack of accessibility to DPS offices, Judge David Tatel wrote: "Even the most committed citizen, we think, would agree that a 200- to 250-mile round trip -- especially for would-be voters having no driver's license -- constitutes a substantial burden on the right to vote."

Noting that under the Texas law many Hispanics and African-Americans who voted in the last election would be unlikely to vote in the next election, Tatel said flatly, "This is retrogression."

Many people in this country believe the intent of this law all along was to keep African-Americans, Latinos, young people, senior citizens and poor people in general away from the polls because they tend to vote Democratic.

But as I've said many times before, they can't keep me from voting, and I'll continue to fight for others' rights as long as I remember the names of those who gave their lives in my lifetime for that precious liberty -- people like Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.

I guarantee you I shall never forget them. So I shall die fighting for what they died for.

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