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We are facing a critical time for voting rights in our country. On [Jan. 16], I spoke to the Southland Ministerial Health Network at their Martin Luther King Day Spirit of Excellence Awards about the need to continue the fight for voting rights as the best way to honor Dr. King’s legacy.
Not that long ago in this country, African Americans who tried to register to vote and those who would help them register, were locked out of clerks’ offices, or worse, intimidated, beaten, even killed – so that they wouldn’t exercise their right to vote. The 1965 Voting Rights Act helped end that violent voter suppression.
As we honor the legacy of Dr. King and those who fought for the Voting Rights Act by registering to vote and going to the polls, we must confront the ugly truth that across the country, voting rights are being threatened again. In 2013 the Supreme Court severely weakened the Voting Rights Act, giving many states wide latitude to restrict access to the polls, which they are doing with enthusiasm. We have yet to see what further damage the Supreme Court will do under the next administration.
Despite the current attacks on voting rights, in Illinois we have improved access and ease in voting. Our successes would not have been possible without the help of engaged and involved citizens, civic groups and legislators. Eleven years ago I introduced early voting to Illinois, and each election cycle we see significant increases in Cook County residents voting early. We have also implemented online voter registration, same-day voter registration and expanded our election judge program to include high school students.
This year, we reached a record 3 million registered voters in Cook County. We have worked diligently to ensure the lists are cleaner and more accurate.
But there is still work to do, here and nationally.
Across the country, we must bring back crucial parts of the Voting Rights Act and reverse dangerous decisions on allowing money to flood our political system. It is outrageous that the Supreme Court has said that your influence will, in effect, be determined by how much money you have.
Here in Illinois, we must pass Automatic Voter Registration (AVR). AVR will save us money by streamlining the process of cleaning the voting rolls and thereby ensuring we have the cleanest rolls possible. Government agencies should harness technology to share information so that voting rolls are accurate and citizens don’t need to unnecessarily engage with multiple bureaucracies.
A functional democracy requires voting so the wishes of the electorate are supposed to guide our public policy. When democracy is weakened, it leads to what we see today: Public policy that is simply not what people want. Voters do not want continuing inequality or justice that is determined based on your skin color or your wealth. Dr. King understood this. He understood the relationship between racism, economic inequality and the right to vote. Today our challenge is galvanizing our energy to continue the fight he gave his life for.
David Orr is the Cook County clerk.