Our nation’s democracy is in a crisis. We are facing the biggest challenge to our nation since its inception. No, there is not an armed rebellion going on, but, oh, is there a war—a silent, insidious, invidious, nefarious, absolutely downright ugly war. And the war is on the right to vote for American citizens.
– Barbara Arnwine, July 2012
At the Children’s Defense Fund’s recent national conference Barbara Arnwine, the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and a leader of Election Protection, the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition, issued an urgent call to action. Right now assaults on voting rights across the country in advance of the 2012 elections are keeping her very busy.
Arwine said 25 million Americans who had voted in 2008 did not vote in the 2010 midterm elections, and when new state legislators came into power after those elections, their first priority was figuring out how to keep those 25 million people from returning to the polls.
Legislators in 35 states quickly drafted bills making it harder for people to vote: “everything from photo ID laws, to laws restricting early voting, to laws making it harder for third party registration groups to register people to vote, to laws making it harder for people to vote on Sundays because in many states that’s when Latinos and African Americans voted the heaviest, to laws restricting student voting.”
Arnwine said the lawmakers behind these bills were counting on the targeted voters not noticing what was happening until it was too late. But, she said, “They forgot that we stand on the shoulders of giants who we will never let down. We get up in the morning and we say that we cannot negate the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer; that we will never forget the legacy of Cesar Chavez; that we never will negate the legacy of Mr. Korematsu; that we never can sit back and let rights be stolen.”
But as Frederick Douglass taught us, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Know your role
Arnwine and her colleagues are doing their part by suing states whose proposed laws violate the Voting Rights Act. But Arnwine stressed that every person can do something to fight in this war on the right to vote, and we each need to decide now how we will execute our roles. Begin by using traditional networks and social networks to make sure every single person you know is a “V.I.P.”: they have verified their voter registration status; they have the right identification for their state; and they know their precinct.
Arnwine summed up this way: “There is a role for everybody. Don’t forget. If you forget everything that I said today, if you remember nothing, just remember this one thing: that we can only win this fight if you fight.” We cannot stand by and let the right to vote be taken away again on our watch. Every one of us must decide what we can do in the fight to protect voting rights today. There’s no time to waste.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (www.childrensdefense.org).