During his remarks last
week at the Lincoln Memorial, President Barack Obama recalled a time when too many people "lived in towns where they couldn't vote and cities where their votes didn't matter."
The president was speaking at the observance marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a landmark in the civil rights movement, and he was referring to an era when many Americans, including millions of African-Americans, were denied access to the ballot box. But he could have been talking about more recent events.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a companion piece to the Civil Rights Act that passed a year earlier, outlawed restrictive legislation aimed at preventing minorities and others from exercising their right to vote. One of the provisions put in place by the 1965 law was to require jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination to get "preclearance" for voting laws, either through the courts or the Justice Department.
The preclearance measure was aimed at preventing voter discrimination on a piecemeal basis. It applied to all or parts of 16 states, mostly in the South, where voter suppression was most egregious. And, for nearly 50 years, it worked. Ironically, however, the progress achieved by minorities in exercising their right to vote was part of the rationale for the Supreme Court's decision this year that struck down the preclearance list.
The court ruling gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, leaving it to Congress to come up with a new means of ensuring equal voting rights. Congress has shown no signs of taking action, but the high court's decision has empowered a number of states to enact regulations hindering voters.
Ensuring access to the ballot box to as many citizens as possible ought to be the ideal for any society that prides itself on being a democracy. The right to vote is fundamental.
Hindering voting, however, has taken on a number of forms more subtle than the poll taxes and literacy tests that prevented millions from casting their ballots in the Jim Crow South. The end result, however, is the same when people are denied access to the polls.
Voter identification requirements, which seem innocuous, can act as a voter suppresser when eligible voters -- including the elderly, minorities and the poor who may lack drivers' license -- find it difficult or costly to obtain other legal identification.
Limiting early voting also can suppress voter turnout, especially in urban areas, where many find it more convenient to vote on weekends or during extended evening hours.
We understand the need for safeguards against voter fraud, but cases of outright deception at the polls are comparatively rare. Erecting bureaurcratic hurdles that discourage eligible voters from going to the polls isn't the answer.
The gains of the civil rights movement that were celebrated during last week's commemoration were hard-fought. Many courageous men and women made great sacrifices, including some, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who lost their lives in the struggle. Ensuring equal access to the ballot box was one of the most important gains made.
As President Obama said, ensuring that the rights attained during the struggle a half-century ago are not lost "requires vigilance." That includes "challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote."