By Andrea L. Zopp
Nearly 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the protections of that act are being attacked and eroded. A key provision of the Act of 1965 was challenged that prohibits states from making discriminatory changes to voting rights laws. And, in June 2013, the provision was invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court, making it more difficult to fight discriminatory voting practices. In addition, states are passing laws to limit voter rights.
Today, nine states have strict voter identification requirements. And this isn’t just happening in the South. Wisconsin passed a statute in 2011 that requires a birth certificate to obtain a voter registration card. Wisconsin’s statute is being challenged but a resolution is unlikely before the November elections. These laws are primarily meant to deter minorities, the poor, youth and the elderly from voting.
There is a reason why these laws are under attack. Those who wage these battles know that there is power in the vote. Power that can transform communities and change the trajectory of the nation. These attacks remind us that the right to vote is a critically important one. This fall, for example, there are important congressional races being decided this November. The next Congress will hold sway over the final two years of President Obama’s second term, and will make decisions about conditions in your child’s school; infrastructure improvements; public grants; child care subsidies; housing laws; unemployment insurance, to name a few. Whenever possible we must to exercise and defend our right to vote.
We’ve shown that when we fully exercise our right to vote we can move mountains. We elected Barack Obama president not once but twice.
Unfortunately, we are very inconsistent in using the power that the constitution gives us. Consider Ferguson, Mo., a city that is 67 percent Black, but has a police force that is 94 percent white. The mayor and the vast majority of the city council are white. And in the 2013 city election, Black voter turnout, that was 54 percent in 2012, fell to a devastating 6 percent. The tragic death of Michael Brown is heartbreaking example of what can possibly happen when we don’t exercise our right to vote. Voter apathy results in underrepresentation and a lack of respect.
We know the power of the vote when we choose to exercise it and what can possibly happen when we don’t exercise it. We must be active voters and informed voters. We have an obligation to educate ourselves before we go to the polls. We have an opportunity for you to get informed on October 14.
Illinois voters have to elect a governor in November. Incumbent Pat Quinn, a Democrat, wants another term. His Republican challenger Bruce Rauner wants the job and both are engaged in a very contentious and expensive campaign. If you haven’t kept up with the issues at stake in this election, especially as it relates to the Black community, please tune in to WVON (1690 AM) or CBS 2 Chicago on October 14 at 6 p.m. to watch a gubernatorial debate being hosted by the Chicago Urban League and the Business Leadership Council at the DuSable Museum of African American History.
Why is asking candidates where they stand on issues that impact our community? It’s quite simple. There are problems that persist in the Black community, such as lack of access to good-paying jobs, a quality education, business capital and safe neighborhoods. We cannot afford to be apathetic about elections. If you do not get engaged and don’t vote, you are sending a message to the architects of voter restriction laws that you don’t care if your inalienable right to vote is stripped away.
Educate yourself on all of the candidates and all issues on the ballot. And come November 4, exercise your right. In Illinois we have an opportunity to strengthen our right to vote. There is an amendment on the ballot to strengthen voter protections, and we should support it. This is a critical time for Illinois and for the nation. We cannot afford to sit any election out.
On November 4, go to the polls and exercise and strengthen your right to vote. Be a voice. Choose a governor, and help elect someone to Congress you believe in. If you aren’t registered, you have until October 7. You don’t need a birth certificate or even a car. You can register online at www.elections.il.gov. It’s your right. Use it.
Andrea L. Zopp is President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.