When this country was founded, only white men owning property could vote. Since then, the franchise has gradually expanded to include blacks and women, the poor and the young. Poll taxes and literacy tests have been abolished. A firm national principle has been established: Every vote should count, and count equally. Until now.
Over the last year, Republicans on the state level have been conducting a cynical campaign to restrict, not enlarge, the right to vote. And a report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University documents their success. Legal changes in 14 states "may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election," the center says. "These new laws could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots" this year.
This is a national disgrace. Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. a generation ago, told the House last summer that voting rights are "under attack ... (by) a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students (and) minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process."
Lewis is absolutely right, and the reason is clear. Republicans are faced with an inescapable demographic and political threat: The American electorate is rapidly becoming less white. In 2008, racial minorities accounted for 26 percent of all voters, and four out of five minority voters backed President Obama. A study by the Center for American Progress concludes that this year, the percentage of minority voters is likely to increase by two points. This trend "clearly favors Democrats," the center said. "Obama has the demographic wind at his back."
It will only get worse for the GOP. For the first time, nonwhites now account for a majority of American children under 2 years old. In 30 years, nonwhites will be a majority of the entire country.
Instead of trying to win over these new voters, many Republicans are driving them away. Mitt Romney's single biggest mistake during the primary season has been his "heartless" opposition (to quote Rick Perry) to immigration reform. Two out of three Latinos backed Obama last time, and polls show a similar number supporting him again -- despite the dismal economy.
Since Republicans are not appealing to these new voters, GOP strategists have decided to discourage them from participating. According to the Brennan Center, eight states enacted laws requiring voters to present photo IDs. (Before last year, only two states had such laws.) About 21 million Americans, or 11 percent of the population, lack such documents. Most of these Americans are on the margins of society and unlikely to vote Republican.
Ohio ended same-day voter registration. Wisconsin made it more difficult for people who move to stay registered. Florida imposed strict rules -- and potentially stiff fines -- on organizations conducting voter registration drives. Georgia, Tennessee and West Virginia reduced early voting periods.
Fortunately, the Justice Department is fighting back. Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, parts of 16 states must get federal approval for changes in voting laws, and last month Attorney General Eric Holder rejected a photo ID measure from South Carolina. His reasoning: Minorities are more than 20 percent more likely than whites to lack such documents.
In a speech in South Carolina on Martin Luther King Day, Holder reiterated his determination to oppose the wave of restrictive measures: "Protecting the right to vote, ensuring meaningful access and combating discrimination must be viewed not only as a legal issue, but as a moral imperative."
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is challenging the Justice Department ruling in federal court, and the outcome is far from certain. The Supreme Court upheld an Indiana photo ID law in 2006, and Chief Justice John Roberts has even suggested that the Voting Rights Act is no longer justified. So imagine this outcome: A diminished electorate picks a president who then selects justices who uphold measures that continue to reverse a 200-year-old trend toward greater inclusion and participation.
Supporters of these measures argue they are necessary to prevent voter fraud, but that's simply not true. Norman Ornstein, an election expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Sacramento Bee that "the evidence of significant voter fraud is zero." Rather, he says, states are enacting "a modern-day equivalent of a poll tax."
Holder is right in calling this a "moral imperative." There's only one word for the "deliberate and systematic attempt" to undermine voting rights going on right now. That word is "un-American."
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokiegmail.com.