I was 14 years old and living in my home state of Texas when the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed. It pulled back the curtain in voting booths throughout the then "Jim Crow" South. It moved America another step forward in fulfilling its promise that all its citizens were created equal. And it freed my mother from having to make major sacrifices in order to pay her "poll tax" on the meager salary of a domestic worker.
The poll tax, as we all know, was designed to block my mother and millions of other African-Americans from exercising their right to vote. But my mother was determined not to let anything stop her from participating in her democracy, even if that meant delaying "lay away" payments of much-needed shoes for her children just so she could pay that poll tax.
Fast forward to 2012. Now, right-wing interests are closing the voting curtain on millions of Americans in states across the country through suppressive voter ID laws.
Look at what happened in Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Corbett signed a $249,660 contract with Bravo Group to promote the state's so called non-partisan voter ID law. The Bravo Group is run by a Mitt Romney fundraiser who is also a former state GOP party executive director, pharmaceutical lobbyist and school voucher advocate. One of their sample PSAs included the tagline: "Your right to vote: it's one thing you never want to miss out on."
Sounds good -- except that more than 758,000 Pennsylvanians could miss out on exercising their fundamental right to vote. According to data released by the Pennsylvania Department of State, 758,939 registered voters in the state, or nine percent, do not have state-issued IDs. In Philadelphia alone, 186,830 registered voters, or 18 percent, do not have IDs.
In a rare unguarded moment, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai boasted that the law is "gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania isn't the only state to push for laws that could disenfranchise legally eligible voters. All across the country, states like Florida, Texas, Ohio and Wisconsin have either passed restrictive laws or are engaging in suppressive tactics like restricting registration, cutting early voting and purging eligible voters.
In the face of such dogged efforts to disenfranchise millions, we must fight back, and we must fight back together.
That is why the AFL-CIO has joined with the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza and other civil rights and community groups to launch our strongest voter protection program ever. The AFL-CIO will have boots on the ground registering and helping voters in Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in coordination with our political program.
We will reach out to folks who are most at risk of being disenfranchised by voter suppression laws-African Americans, Latinos and young people and ensure that everyone can exercise their right to vote this November and in future elections.
We will not allow orchestrated efforts by right-wing groups to squash the voice of working people.
We already know that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-backed group which sparked national controversy after the Trayvon Martin killing over "Stand Your Ground" laws, drafted a "Voter ID Act" model bill that looks remarkably similar to the Voter ID laws passed in Pennsylvania, Texas, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
What we're facing is not just one legislator's so-called concern about voter fraud or "protecting" the vote, but a very coordinated effort to turn our democracy from one that belongs to the people into one that is controlled by corporate interests.
While working families will never outmatch the right wing dollars poured into politics to skew our democracy, we can organize and stand up together. Corporate power will never compare to people power.
How will we do that? For starters, 2.3 million union members are not registered to vote; that's a challenge we are ready to take on now. And in the next few months, we will be in town halls, classrooms and community centers. Hundreds and thousands of working families will be out in the streets, and together with our allies, we will aim to register 500,000 new voters in our six target states. We will make sure that everyone has the information they need to ensure their voices are heard.
With all the attacks this past year, it seems as if we have gone backward in time. Only decades ago, people fought and died for our right to vote. With the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we enshrined that sacred right.
In the coming months, we must stand together and say, as a community, as a nation, that those who fought for our right to vote did not struggle in vain -- that our democracy is only as strong as the people who can participate in it. As Dr. King said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." The right to vote matters and the voices of the people will not be silenced.