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Preserving our sacred right to vote

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Updated: May 14, 2014 6:34AM

As the nation last week celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a vote in Springfield reminded us that the fight against discrimination, including in the voting booth, is far from over.

On Tuesday, the Illinois House overwhelmingly approved a proposed constitutional amendment to forestall future attempts at voter suppression, and on Thursday the Senate passed it by a 52-0 vote. If OKd by the voters in November, the amendment will prevent citizens from being denied the right to register or to vote based on race, color, ethnicity, language, sex, sexual orientation or income.

Some people may argue that Illinois needs no such an amendment because the state has no recent history of scheming to limit voting. But various efforts to make it harder to vote — including requiring photo IDs, petty rules to kick voters off the rolls and disenfranchising ex-felons — have popped up in many other states, including the northern states of Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. There’s no guarantee a future group of Illinois lawmakers might not think such restrictions are all excellent ideas.

As a state and a nation, we dare not return even incrementally to a less enlightened, less democratic, era. And for the sake of our own times, it’s healthy to remember what a stunning achievement the passage of the Civil Rights Act was. It banned discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin. And it led quickly to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited such vote suppression measures as poll taxes and literacy tests.

Speaking Thursday at a summit at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library honoring the anniversary of the historic 1964 law, President Barack Obama said he’s “lived out” its “promise.”

But when it comes to social progress, two steps forward inevitably is threatened by one step back. Laws change, but we don’t all get religion.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a major piece of the Voting Rights Act, giving southern states whose elections were monitored by the federal government the right to set their own voting laws without advance approval. Republicans in several of those states promptly imposed new measures to make it harder to vote. For example, North Carolina sharply cut the number of early voting days and made it harder to register. In all, nine states have made it tougher to vote since the beginning of 2013.

The politics are obvious: Requiring photo IDs, reducing the number of voting days and discouraging voter registration drives mostly impact voters who lean Democratic. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, as many as 11 percent of eligible voters don’t have government-issued photo IDs, and most of those people are from Democratic-leaning groups, such as those with low incomes, the disabled and the elderly.

On face value, demanding that a voter show an ID might seem entirely reasonable. We show our driver’s licenses for everything from renting cars to getting a library card. But there is simply no evidence that IDs are needed to prevent election fraud. Voter impersonation is nearly nonexistent, and proponents of the Pennsylvania ID law could not cite a single case of fraud.

Rather than throw up hurdles to voting, a true democracy tears thems down.

How fitting it was that the Illinois General Assembly last week, at the half century mark of one of Congress’ most significant achievements, overwhelming approved a bill to further the cause of free and open elections.

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