On Friday, when President Barack Obama told a New York audience that the push to restrict voting rights was a political ploy, he had a point. But, the voting-rights battle is more than a partisan fight.
It is, at its core, a struggle to wrestle away civil-rights gains made by minorities in general, and blacks in particular.
Not an isolated issue
I wish I could dismiss this as a Southern issue that is solely about the Supreme Court scuttling the Voting Rights Act. But, voter disenfranchisement takes many forms.
It is accomplished through gerrymandering, which is the practice of drawing legislative districts to give one group an advantage over another.
It is accomplished through restrictions on provisional ballots or early voting.
It takes the form of Voter ID laws that purport to stop voter fraud. Unfortunately, no one has shown that voter fraud actually exists.
“The real voter fraud is people who try to deny our rights by making bogus arguments about voter fraud,” Obama said during Friday’s speech to Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.
I wish I could say Obama was wrong, but he’s not.
The issue hits home
The fight to restrict voting rights is a national problem that is, in many ways, centered on cities like Philadelphia.
How important is Philadelphia? About one in eight Pennsylvania voters live here, which gives Philadelphia the ability to swing both statewide and national elections.
In the 2012 presidential election, for example, Obama received 557,000 Philadelphia votes, and won the state by 287,000 votes. Without the huge cushion in Philadelphia, where nearly 50 percent of voters are African American, Obama would have lost the state’s 20 electoral votes, and possibly, the presidency.
Why else is Philadelphia important? It’s important because 44 percent of its population is African American, 13 percent of its population is Latino and nearly 7 percent of its population is Asian. Not only are minorities more likely to vote liberal than conservative, but they are also less likely to have identification when they go to the voting booth.
That’s why the fight over Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Law is a significant one.
Though the law was struck down by a Commonwealth judge in January, the Corbett administration could appeal.
If the pro-Voter ID forces won, it would negatively impact voters of color. By extension, it would negatively impact Philadelphia, by curtailing the city’s ability to swing statewide and national elections.
That would mean returning to the days when political Jim Crow was the order of the day.
Black voters, while welcome in Pennsylvania voting booths, were subject to segregated schools and neighborhoods right up through the early- to mid-1970s. The lack of political power left blacks with little recourse other than protest.
History is a master teacher
It rewards star pupils by pushing them forward, and dooms bad students to repeat its most painful lessons. If we stand by and allow any American to lose his voting rights to political machinations, we are forgetting what made us American in the first place. We are asking to refight old battles.
Americans of every stripe have died for the right to vote.
Poor white men and immigrants, women and people of color; all of them have fought through every imaginable barrier in order to secure that right.
It is the one right that levels the playing field between the rich and the poor. But, with the push to restrict voting, that level playing field could very well disappear for good.
Voting, you see, is much more than a fundamental right. It is also a matter of justice. The President rightly made that point when he spoke in New York on Friday.
“Just as inequality feeds on justice,” he said. “Opportunity requires justice, and justice requires the right to vote.”
It is a requirement that must extend to every American. Otherwise, we are simply not the country we claim to be.