A year after a Right-leaning US Supreme Court invalidated crucial provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the fight against state-level legislative efforts to limit the franchise is in full swing. With 34 states having already approved some form of voter ID requirement and other GOP-led statehouses pushing other measures, Ohio State Rep. Alicia Reece dreams of marching a Voters’ Bill of Rights from her crucial swing district all the way to Washington. We spoke with her about the fight to keep the vote in Ohio, and beyond.
EBONY: Most people assume their right to vote is enshrined in the US Constitution. Why does Ohio need its own Voters Bill of Rights?
AR: Most people think that, but right now those rights actually are not there. Making voting a fundamental right for all citizens is not written into our Ohio constitution. We’re also addressing what qualifies a voter, sealing in early vote days, and ‘Souls to the Polls’, which is voting on Sundays and that’s important here. We have large turnouts on those days and we need to allow voting to be more accessible to the working family. We can’t just have one voting day when so many people are working two and three jobs.
EBONY: And you’ve got a pretty tight deadline to get this on the ballot?
AR: We have to turn in 385,254 good signatures from across the state by July 2, but since we know that some of the signatures will be thrown out, we really need twice that number. And before we could start collecting signatures, we already had to get the ballot initiative certified by a Republican attorney general and then by a bi-partisan ballot board headed by Republicans, and we did that.
EBONY: Everything this addresses is important beyond Ohio, so why not push for a change to the US Constitution?
AR: First, you can’t get to the White House without winning Ohio. And here we’ve had so many voter suppression bills trying to tamp down on turnout that Ohio has become the new South, the 'ground zero' for voting rights.
We are losing a lot of things in a state-by-state, Republican strategy to suppress the vote, so why aren’t we going state by state to ensure that voting rights are protected?
EBONY: Wouldn’t a US Constitutional amendment prevent state legislatures from rolling back voting rights?
AR: That’s where we need to go, but state legislatures aren’t waiting for us to work toward that. They’re moving quickly to gut voting rights. We’ve already had more than 30 bills in the Ohio legislature. We can’t wait, this has to happen now.
EBONY: What were some of those laws?
AR: After the Bush debacle in 2000, Ohio had a black eye as far as voting rights. Democrats and Republicans actually came together to fix those problems. We expanded early voting to 25 days but since then we’ve had several bills introduced by Republicans that would have cut early voting to just 16 days, not including Sunday. That is huge for African-American voters because so many of us have traditionally gone to church on Sunday and voted after.
In Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, they moved the board of elections to a location that has only one bus line. We have a large group of people who go to downtown Cincinnati to vote because it’s right on all the bus lines, so now they have problems getting to the polls. We also have voter ID hanging in the wings. It hasn’t passed yet, but it’s coming. There’s one precinct in my district where it took us two years and $2 million to get all the votes counted because these changes.
EBONY: You’re an elected official, so why not introduce legislation to address this?
AR: We had legislation in the Voting Rights Act, but since that wasn’t put into the Constitution, it became a temporary solution to a permanent problem. And we cannot win this battle legislatively in Ohio where Republicans control the legislature. So, we’re collecting signatures to get this on the ballot. If the people in Ohio and Florida and Georgia have a say, then it becomes easier when we go for an amendment to the US Constitution. This lays the groundwork.
EBONY: What about people in other states where these voter suppression laws are also being passed?
AR: We need that help from around the country. Just this petition effort to get on the ballot is going to cost $1.5 million. That’s where people from other places can help us. Then, we want to be a catalyst. We already have folks from Florida and California looking at the language in our initiative to see if they can do the same.
EBONY: There was a massive, national grassroots effort to get the Voting Rights Act passed. Why are we not seeing the same efforts today?
AR: Rev. Otis Moss Jr. is our national adviser. I wasn’t around with Dr. King, but he was. I’ve only read about that era. I do know it’s my generation’s responsibility to stand up and to fight back and make sure that the next generation doesn’t have to fight this battle. We’ve got lots of new voters for whom President Obama was their first election. They don’t even remember what happened in Ohio with Bush.
This is very important, but it’s not as difficult as the fight for the Voting Rights Act. We don’t have dogs or hoses being turned on us. All we have to do is get the signatures on the petition.