January 14, 2011

The Vote...The Most Powerful Instrument

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

In 1865 Ezekiel Gillespie fought for the right of African Americans to vote in Wisconsin.  On August 6th, 1965 the Voting Rights Act became law with President Lyndon Johnson’s signature.  This landmark legislation stopped discrimination at the polls and discrimination in redistricting.  Before this law, racist voting practices, especially in the South, disenfranchised countless Black voters through methods such as poll taxes and literacy tests.  In addition, political gerrymandering often created districts which made certain that black voters were kept at the margins and had little influence on the outcome of elections.  The Voting Rights Act attempted to move us forward from such discrimination and reaffirm our Constitutional creed that all men are created equal.  We cannot deny people the right to vote and we must create policies that respect the vote. 

I am concerned today, however, that we may be backsliding into more subtle forms of voter discrimination. Two issues specifically may limit the voting rights of African Americans living in Wisconsin:  voter ID. laws and redistricting. 

I am troubled by the proposed ‘voter ID’ bill. This legislation would require each voter to show a drivers license or state issued ID at their polling place.  Some have called this the ‘new poll tax’; a 21st century form of suppressing the vote in communities of color.  No citizen should be required to pay money in order to have access to the ballot box, and yet a driver’s license in Wisconsin, which would be the new ticket to voting, costs $28.   For comparison, when a similar law was passed in Georgia, 17.3 percent of the minority population was unable to cast a vote.  The Wisconsin bill also contains a provision which would require a person’s current address to be on their driver’s license.  Tricks like these should have long since been a thing of the past and these are standards which Wisconsin should not follow.

The Voter Rights Act also protected against unfair redistricting practices, which limited the impact of minority votes which were mostly Democratic. Redistricting occurs every 10 years based on population changes in the state. Legislative lines are redrawn and reformed to account for population growth in some areas and lowering populations in others.  The Republicans, who are now in the majority, just announced that the Democrats would not be allowed to hire lawyers for the purposes of redistricting.  Because of this, Republicans will have total control over the drawing of the new district maps.  I am very worried that African American areas of the state like Milwaukee may be subject to the same partisan gerrymandering that has occurred in Texas, South Carolina and other Southern states.  These states have seen a diminishing voice in their Black communities.  Here in Wisconsin, we must stand up to make sure that our community continues to have a voice and input into state politics. 

Wisconsin’s voting laws currently encourage participation.  If these gerrymandering plans and new poll taxes are allowed to go forward, we will lose part of our democracy, part of who we are.  The Congress that passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 moved us a giant step toward equality and justice.  We stand on the shoulders of those who fought so hard for that.  Our generation must now do its part and not allow us to take a step back.