On Monday, we celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King even as we marked the 48th anniversary of his assassination. Today, voters will go to the polls in the Wisconsin primaries, but a new raft of voter suppression laws will ensure the results are skewed. One of King’s great legacies — the Voting Rights Act — is now under assault across the country.
In Wisconsin, voter suppression laws were passed by a conservative Republican legislature despite the fact there was no evidence of voter fraud to justify them. The legislature seemed intent on passing the most restrictive laws. They passed the whole passel of conservative model laws and invented a few more. The laws were challenged in court, but the Supreme Court refused to review a lower court decision leaving them in place.
The voter suppression laws include requiring a photo ID for voting, a measure that might affect an estimated 300,000 voters, disproportionately older, younger, poor and people of color. They reduced early voting times from 30 days to 12 days and eliminated it on weekends and evenings, discriminating against workers who can’t get leave to go to the polls. They eliminated statewide certification of registrars, so registrars can only enroll voters in the country where they are certified, making registration more difficult. They eliminated faxing and emailing of absentee ballots — except to military and overseas voters — making absentee voting more difficult. They eliminated straight ticket voting, except for military and overseas voters, ensuring waiting times and lines will be longer when people go to vote. They made it harder to use student ID as proof of residence, even as they required proof of residence to vote.
The thrust of these laws is clear: They are designed to make it harder to vote, particularly for working people who can’t take time off, for students, for the elderly who might not have the right ID, for the poor and people of color. No wonder Bernie Sanders denounced the suppression laws as “truly un-American.” Hillary Clinton’s legal counsel challenged them in court. Key constituents of both candidates will be impacted. The Wisconsin primary results will be distorted — and that is the intent. In the general election, these laws will be most destructive to the Democratic voting base, not the Republican base. And that is intentional also.
This is a disgrace. Forty-eight years after King’s death, we witness how much of his agenda remains unfinished, how much is being reversed. He marched against inequality and poverty, but inequality is worse, and childhood poverty in the United States is the worst of any large country. He marched for equal protection under the laws, but our system of racial injustice continues to discriminate, particularly against young black men. He marched for voting rights, and now across the country conservatives are systematically passing laws to making voting harder. He protested against the endless war in Vietnam that robbed the funds needed for the war on poverty at home. And now we seem stuck in endless wars without victory on the other side of the world, even as our own neighborhoods suffer from the lack of public investment in everything from clean water systems to public schools.
King will be remembered for helping to make America better. But he always taught us justice can’t be inherited. Equal opportunity can’t be taken for granted. “Human progress,” he wrote, “is neither automatic nor inevitable. ... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle, the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” And as Wisconsin will show, the struggle must continue simply to guarantee every American the right to vote.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson
is a civil rights activist.