When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965, and when President George W. Bush renewed it in 2006, they were trying to prevent 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 worked to eliminate same-day voter registration and require photo identifications cards from voters. 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.