August 6 is a sobering anniversary for those of us who care deeply about the health of our democracy. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on that day in 1965, and when President George W. Bush renewed it in 2006, they were trying to prevent new barriers to voting. It is tragic that efforts to bar millions of Americans from casting ballots have instead accelerated in recent years.
Observers should not underestimate this threat -- the very future of our democracy is at stake. Voter suppression efforts have only grown since 2000, when our worries were about the accuracy of voting equipment and Supreme Court bias. Even if the outcome was uncertain, however, most voters were rarely barred from participating in elections.
Since then, broad swaths of our population have been targeted for attack. A national legislative campaign coordinated by the American Legislative Exchange Council has passed laws that could inordinately lock students, senior citizens, African-Americans and Hispanics out of their polling places. ALEC's list of backers reads like a corporate Who's Who -- Koch Enterprises, Peabody Energy, UPS and Exxon Mobil, to name a few. These companies have millions to gain from legislatures favoring wealthy over low-income Americans.
In states from Wisconsin to Texas, ALEC's local allies have successfully passed generic legislation to eliminate same-day voter registration and to restrict voting to people who possess photo identification cards. If allowed to stand, these laws will fundamentally change the composition of the American electorate in ways not seen since the poll tax stopped poor African-American citizens from voting in the post-Reconstruction Era after the Civil War.
Unfortunately, our nation is particularly susceptible to a wide-range of ill-intentioned voting laws because there is no uniformity from state to state, or even from county to county. Unlike almost every modern democracy, voting is administered differently depending on where you live, with separate sets of rules about registration, early voting dates and provisional vote counting.
Today, the Voting Rights Act is the last best hope for vacating these anti-democratic, prejudicial laws and practices. A key provision of the law, called per-clearance, can prevent implementation of discriminatory voting legislation in states with a history of discrimination. Thus, the spate of ALEC-sponsored laws in Texas, South Carolina and Florida has triggered reviews by the U.S. Justice Department.
Every American has a stake in the Voting Rights Act preserving election integrity. How ironic that it may take a 20th century law to prevent 19th century abuses. It is, after all, the 21st century. We should be marching toward equality, not back in time toward discrimination.
Follow David Orr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cookcountyclerk