'Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." As we celebrate the 230th anniversary of America's independence, we must heed the warning of abolitionist and patriot Wendell Phillips. The liberties we celebrate are not written in stone. They must be renewed and defended by every generation. And they must be guarded vigilantly against those who would undermine them.
If the greatest liberty is the freedom of speech and assembly, enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, then the greatest power to enforce our liberty is the vote. For the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act -- passed after Bloody Sunday in Selma -- was essential to transforming the South. The act empowered the federal government to police the states that were using a range of devices to suppress African-American votes. The act required that any change in election laws in the states with a history of segregation be pre-cleared -- and that none be allowed that would diminish the right or the power of minority voters.
Now that basic principle is under assault once more. In Georgia, a right-wing Republican legislature passed a law demanding that every properly registered voter show a state issued photo ID -- a driver's license or a state substitute -- to be able to vote. The Georgia secretary of state revealed that as many as 800,000 registered voters did not have such identification. Worse, fully one-third of African-American voters above the age of 65 had no such ID. Partisan Republicans were using phantom fears of fraudulent voting to suppress the votes of hundreds of thousands of minorities.
A more blatant and racially biased tampering with voting rights is hard to invent. The professionals in the Justice Department urged the department to oppose the implementation of the act. They were overruled by the partisan political appointees. Now in a primary scheduled for July, the state of Georgia will witness the racially biased suppression of legally registered voters.
In Texas, Tom DeLay -- indicted for allegedly illegally laundering the money of corporations to achieve his end -- used the partisan GOP state legislature to engineer an off-year gerrymandering of Texas legislative districts, overturning the redistricting ordered by the courts. That gained Republicans five seats in the Congress and undermined minority voters' influence. The professionals in Justice opposed clearance of the gerrymandered scheme -- but once again were overruled by the partisan political appointees. Last week a badly divided Supreme Court approved the Texas gerrymander, even as it ruled that one district violated minority rights. The New York Times editorialized that "the court produced a ruling that did little to ensure the vibrancy of American democracy, and that itself had an unfortunate whiff of partisanship."
The Republican majority in Congress blocked a vote on renewing the Voting Rights Act itself, in a staged revolt by the so-called right wing of the right wing that controls the Congress. Legislators from the South who want to regain the right of their states to suppress minority voters were joined by legislators posturing against provisions that require that ballots be printed in both English and in a second language if such is spoken by a sizable minority of legally registered voters. This provision, uncontroversial for years, suddenly became a punching bag for Republicans who are fanning fears about immigration in a desperate effort to distract attention from their failed policies in Iraq, the economy, privatization of Social Security, etc.
After the horrors of the presidential elections in 2000 and 2004, one might think that George Bush would champion clean elections, modernizing our electoral system, and renewing the act. Instead, we witness the systemic effort to undermine voting rights: Partisan, off-year gerrymandering. Partisan voter suppression schemes. Partisan overruling of Justice Department career professionals. Partisan efforts to block renewal of the act itself.
Over the nation's 230 years, citizens have mobilized to extend basic rights and liberties to working people, women, the young, African Americans and other minorities. Our liberties have been secured through struggle. Now, in the face of what appears to be a systematic effort to trample voting rights, citizens of conscience must rouse themselves once more. We cannot let the rights won at such a high price be stolen by powerful partisans. We must let those in power -- the politicians, the political appointees, the partisan justices -- know that there will be a terrible price to pay if the Voting Rights Act is not renewed and its provisions are not respected.
© 2006 Digital Chicago, Inc.