In a democracy, a person's vote is their voice. For much of our history, however, not everyone's voice was welcome at the voting booth. It was not until 49 years ago with the signing of the Voting Rights Act that the promise of century-old Constitutional amendments was backed up with the force of law and the will of the federal government.
Nearly half a century and one damaging Supreme Court decision later, it is more clear than ever that we still need a robust Voting Rights Act.
The manipulation of the electorate is nothing new, but in recent years its scope has expanded dramatically. According to a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, new voting restrictions will be in place in 22 states heading into the 2014 midterm elections. And these are no longer relegated to traditional southern states. The analysis points out that voting has been made harder across the country, including in swing states like Ohio.
Earlier this year, the GOP-controlled legislature eliminated the first week of early voting in Ohio -- the only same-day registration and voting opportunity in the state. This was quickly followed up by action from the Republican secretary of state which did away with evening early voting hours that busy, hard-working Ohioans need to cast their ballot early.
These changes do not just make it harder to vote -- they make it more difficult for citizens to participate in their government. Moreover, those most affected by early voting cutbacks are America's minority and low-income populations. These individuals are already more likely to skip casting a ballot because of transportation difficulties, trouble finding childcare, or the challenge of juggling multiple jobs. Thanks to these new restrictions, they will face even more hurdles on the way to the ballot box.
The right to vote is an important guarantee by itself, but it is what those votes add up to that matters even more. These votes shape the government under which we live. Making it harder for the most vulnerable voters to participate in the political process inevitably leads to policies and policymakers that do not represent the interests of all people. Instead of pursuing policies that foster economic opportunity -- like investments in education to break cycles of generational poverty, workplace policies that strengthen our families and our economy, and ensuring employees get a good wage for a hard day's work -- the rungs on the ladder to economic success and security continue to grow further and further apart.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, upon signing the Voting Rights Act said "the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men." Instead of working towards the more perfect union promised in the Constitution, we are now at risk of sliding backwards into battles that have been fought and won generations before. This progress came at great cost to many Americans, and we should not squander the blood, sweat, and tears they shed in shaping a better nation.
The truth is, our democracy is stronger when more people participate and when everyone's views are heard. More participation not only leads to a more representative government, but also more thoughtful policies that better leverage the strengths -- and better address the challenges -- of the American mosaic.
The voting games that have unfolded in the past few years prove that the Voting Rights Act is needed now more than ever. Until the lessons of the past are learned in earnest, it may be needed for a long time to come.
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