Voting rights and wrongs in Maryland

November 06, 2005|By C. FRASER SMITH

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, a gesture of dignified defiance that led America toward a new day. Her refusal came to represent every right black America was seeking - in the streets, in the courts and in the world of politics.

The right to vote was among the most critically important of these rights because it put power in the hands of the powerless. Black people could elect men and women who seemed likely to understand and act on their interests. It's called democracy.

But now, as Mrs. Parks and other partisans in that grim and glorious movement are passing, the right to vote is being threatened by the demands of life in an age of terrorism and by the need to protect the integrity of the system. It's ballot access vs. ballot security.

Recent efforts to make voting easier in Maryland - an impulse in the spirit of Mrs. Parks - have been opposed for reasons that seem entirely political.

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed a series of bills intended to remove some of the system's encrustation of regulations. He promised a study commission to determine if the changes were needed. But he has waited far too long to appoint his commission. It's unlikely any meaningful reforms can be enacted in time for next year's election - and perhaps that's the point.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bills Mr. Ehrlich vetoed, believes the governor acted only to avoid criticism, not because he wants to plug leaks in the system. If he really had a passion to improve the system, he would have named his commission and ordered it to quickly review the best recommendations for reform.

The bills, also offered in the Senate by state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden of Baltimore, would have made voting easier by allowing voting five days before Election Day, allowing for absentee voting on a wider basis, studying the need for a paper trail in the computer-based election system and providing ways to vote provisionally if your identification papers are not in perfect order.

These changes track some of the reforms proposed by a bipartisan national commission. The panel was led by James A. Baker III, the former Republican U.S. secretary of state, who saw the voting system's flaws when he represented George W. Bush in the Florida voting fiasco in 2000, and by former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat who has been an elections monitor in countries worldwide.

They urged a voter identification process that some initially likened to the literacy tests and poll taxes that were intended to keep blacks out of the voting booths in the days of Jim Crow. The commission proposed that states find and register voters and provide them with IDs.

But Republicans never have wanted higher turnout where they are outgunned. In many situations, the new voters would be poor and black, and largely Democratic. Political reality does not augur for progressive reform.

But we have just celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, a law needed to strip the system of discrimination. States such as Maryland had been so opposed to giving the vote to black Americans that they declined to approve the 15th Amendment, which extended to them the right to vote. For years after that, other measures were taken to sustain a whites-only democracy.

Democrats in Maryland openly and shamelessly attempted to remove blacks from the voter rolls. Three times, voters were asked to approve new voting systems that excluded certain people - most of whom would have been black. Each time, the electorate of Maryland said no, in part because immigrant groups also would have been vulnerable to disfranchisement.

One hundred years later, the tactics are different and the party is Republican. Prospects for a useful product from Governor Ehrlich's commission are not great. He's offered too little time for a thorough study, even with guidance from the national commission. It would be better for the General Assembly to override his vetoes.

Rosa Parks helped to liberate the front seats of buses, lunch counters and voting booths. Her legacy must be honored.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is

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