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In 1920, a major effort to register newly enfranchised voters and educate them in the political process was prominent on the agenda of the just formed League of Women Voters. A few years later, state Leagues were challenged to increase voter turnout by 25 percent, leading the Alabama League to note: “…it is a very difficult matter to qualify for the vote in Alabama…”
Today, states are taking steps that will profoundly affect the number of qualified voters in the 2012 Presidential Election. This year, voter ID requirements, limits on third-party voter registration drives, eliminating Election Day registration and curtailing early voting are all measures that have been proposed or passed in a disturbing number of states. Coupled with dramatic budget cuts that are closing driver’s license offices, democracy is growing increasingly unsafe for the nation.
Recently, I was a guest on the National Public Radio show, “On Point,” featuring a program on voter suppression, “A War on Voting.” A number of callers noted the disproportionate impact of the new laws on underserved communities. One elections official in rural Tennessee said that she would be required to turn away voters with whom she is personally acquainted, if they lacked the requisite government issued ID.
Cash-strapped agencies can make seemingly innocuous decisions that have an impact on voting rights. For instance, the U.S. Postal Service is proposing to close offices across the country, including the reservation in South Dakota where Wounded Knee is located. That post office is a lifeline to the community, including vital voter services such as voter registration and requesting and returning absentee ballots. No one can accuse the USPS of deliberately impinging on voting rights, but regardless of intent, the result is the same – a voter not served.