By Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.
Millions of Black Americans and millions of other Americans who know the essential power and responsibility of voting are welcoming the decision just made by the United States District Court in Washington, D.C. A three-judge federal panel overturned the Texas voter suppression law, known as Texas Senate Bill 14, that unjustly required voters in the state of Texas to present government-issued photo identification or to acquire special photo voter ID cards before having the right to cast a vote in state and federal elections across the state. This is a victory for voting rights and for the Civil Rights Movement.
A half-century ago, the federal courts were used to enforced social and political change. But during the last two decades or so, the courts have been stacked with ultra conservative judges who have sought to dismantle some of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. Plus, given the fact of the disproportionate incarceration of Black Americans in federal and state prisons, the court system today is not looked upon in general with a great deal of confidence that equal justice will be served. That is why we thank God for the Obama administration and for Attorney General Eric Holder’s efforts to challenge voter suppression laws in Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Texas and in other states across the nation in a climate of judicial activism – by conservative judges.
In striking down this particular repressive legislation , the United States District Court panel stated that the Texas law imposed, “Strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor” by charging fees to those poor and minority voters to obtain birth certificates as a prerequisite to getting the special photo voter ID cards. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott argued unsuccessfully that the Texas legislature had the right to enforce the new Texas law that was an obvious violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Another problem was that the new ID cards would only be available at the office of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), which means that some Texans would have to pay the cost of travel for more than 200 miles just to get to the DPS office.
The court’s unanimous 56- page decision found that the fees and the costs associated with the enforcement of this law violated the civil rights of minorities and poor people in Texas. The federal court declared, “Moreover, while a 200 to 250 mile trip to and from a D.P.S. office would be a heavy burden for any prospective voter, such a journey would be especially daunting for the working poor.”
Gov. Perry, a former Republican candidate for president, complained about the court’s decision. He said, “Chalk up another victory for fraud…. Today, federal judges subverted the will of the people of Texas and undermined our effort to ensure fair and accurate elections. The Obama administration’s claim that it’s a burden to present a photo ID to vote simply defies common sense.”
What really defies common decency, equal justice and fairness is the repressive attitude and actions of governors like Mr. Perry who continue to show a fundamental disdain for the Voting Rights Act.
Attorney General Holder emphasized, “The court’s decision today and the decision earlier this week on the Texas redistricting plans not only reaffirm — but help protect — the vital role the Voting Rights Act plays in our society to ensure that every American has the right to vote and to have that vote counted.”
I agree with Attorney General Holder and it is my hope that this decision will help us to mobilize more to get out the vote not only in Texas, but in every state. There is so much at stake in the upcoming national elections. We, therefore, should see that these systematic attempts to suppress our votes are only indications of how important and precious our votes really are in determining the future of America. We need to keep building a strong momentum toward the November 2012 elections.
Texas is the largest state covered by the Voting Rights Act and now we see what it was necessary to enact the law in the first place. Texas has a long history of voting disenfranchisement, trampling on the rights of minorities and the poor. Voter suppression has political consequences. We will not bend on this issue and we will not relent. Now is the time to vigilant and active.
The court ruling is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, we should not only take notice of the legal victory thus far, but also we need to take action in every voting precinct to increase voter registration and mobilization. Keep alert. Let’s fight this in the courts and in the voting booths. Let’s win more victories for freedom, justice and equality.
Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and Education Online Services Corporation. He also serves as senior adviser for the Diamond Empowerment Fund and National Director of Occupy the Dream and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org