Our Arkansas constitution guarantees that “no power, civil or military, shall ever interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.” In other words, voting is a fundamental right.
We have come far to get to the point that voting is a fundamental right. In 1961, well within memory for many, there were zero African-American citizens registered to vote in Amite County, Miss. Zero.
It took the courageous organizing of a young man named Bob Moses to ensure that constitutional rights actually meant something more than mere words on paper.
In 1961, Moses went to the courthouse in tiny Liberty, Miss., the Amite County seat. Moses and an African-American farmer and minster were beaten senseless by a sheriff’s deputy and others that first day they tried to register to vote.
Bloodied and bandaged, Moses announced to an assembled crowd the night of the beating that it occurred to him that he was no different than any other man. It occurred to him that “all” were created equal.
So Moses went back to the Liberty courthouse the next week. And the next. Moses didn’t quit until all could exercise their fundamental right to vote.
We have come a long way since 1961, and racial animus is not nearly what it once was. But even if a law is passed with the best of intentions, laws that disproportionately impact elderly, minority or poor should give us pause.
Now Arkansans’s fundamental right to vote may be threatened.
Act 595 of the 2013 Arkansas General Assembly is known as the Voter ID law. The Arkansas Voter ID law is similar to other laws enacted around the nation during President Obama’s time in office. Courts in Missouri, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have found that these so-called Voter ID laws place additional burdens on the right to vote. Courts have specifically held that these Voter ID laws also disproportionately impact elderly, minority and poor voters.
In the past, the Arkansas Supreme Court has found that our state constitution is the “fortification within which the people have entrenched themselves for the preservation of their rights and privileges.”
As ever, it’s important not to forget our history. The fortress that defends our rights only survives if those we elect vigilantly stand watch.
The statistics are clear that the Arkansas Voter ID law today disproportionately impacts elderly, minority and poor voters. Even if you buy the argument that the Voter ID law is valid on its face, the law’s implementation has been messy and unequal at best — many voters from the May 20 primary say poll workers illegally quizzed them about the information on their ID.
Gov. Mike Beebe has said that the Voter ID law that passed over his veto was an expensive solution in search of a problem. The problem the Voter ID law seeks to address — in-person vote fraud — is not a problem in Arkansas. A separate absentee bearer issue may be the real culprit, if there is one to be found.
A young woman named Freedom is now one of the plaintiffs seeking to overturn the Arkansas Voter ID law.
Just as Moses took a stand in Liberty, Miss., Freedom is now fighting in Little Rock. Let’s hope our state Supreme Court takes note, and remembers that we are who we are because of where we have come from.
Chris Burks serves as a Pulaski County Election Commissioner.