By State Rep. Ronald G. Waters
191st Legislative District
Chairman, Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus
As a legislator, I have come across pieces of legislation, commentary from public figures and news stories that I believe are discriminatory in nature. They have caused me to think that the more things change, the more they stay the same. While great strides have been made in civil rights and equality, this country still faces varying levels of discrimination and prejudices.
I am concerned about a measure the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed that aims to limit one of the duties and liberties many have fought and died for: a citizen’s right to vote.
The voter ID legislation, if passed, will silence many minority, low-income and senior voters throughout the Commonwealth. These groups are more likely than any other to lack an acceptable form of identification at the polls. This measure is an attempt at disenfranchising voters whose needs may not fall in line with the Republican majority in the Commonwealth.
Over the last decade, out of an estimated 20 million ballots, we’ve only seen four cases of voter fraud. Relatively speaking, if only four out of 20 million students failed in school, we would consider that outstanding. If only four out of 20 million were unemployed, we would consider that full employment. If only four out of 20 million people were diagnosed with cancer, we would consider that a medical victory. But for some reason the proponents of mandatory voter ID think that having four out of 20 million people commit voter fraud is a major problem. Those that support this measure are trying to prevent a problem that is nearly non-existent. This is a solution in search of a problem. We should not create barriers to people expressing their constitutional right to vote. We should encourage voter turnout and seek ways to increase participation.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” These words, spoken by Abraham Lincoln, are being violated daily. Conservatives throughout this country have failed to treat all men equally. They have made every effort to contradict the values behind this statement and infringe upon civil liberties and discriminate against minorities, the poor, mentally challenged and senior citizens. Such efforts have been made at all levels from government to religious institutions. These institutions should be the pillars of our communities and the very sources that exemplify equality, liberty and justice for all.
The disenfranchisement issue has reared its ugly head in other forms within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as recently as last week when legislation, which I voted against, was reported out of the House Judiciary Committee.
House Bill 2032 addresses theft of scrap metals and would enact additional mandatory minimum sentences for violations. This bill is unnecessary because current law already addresses the problem of theft of scrap metals and imposes legal penalties on violators of the law. This legislation unfairly targets the disadvantaged, undereducated and substance abusers who fail to understand the gravity of their actions. Most of these people cannot afford quality legal counsel like the more affluent who have their charges reduced or dismissed all together. For instance, two people are charged with an identical crime, but due to resources or the lack thereof they get treated differently. This leaves such groups to face stiffer sentences and increased penalties. This is simply another attempt at targeting the less fortunate of our communities.
The discrimination does not stop within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Recent comments made by Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich were disturbing, to say the least. Gingrich inferred that the unemployment problems within our cities are a result of a lack of work ethic, perpetuated from generation to generation. Statistically, his remarks target African Americans and Hispanics. He suggested that inner city children have not seen a valid example of work ethic and therefore have been conditioned to be “lazy.” Mr. Gingrich should not be so quick to judge people who are down on their luck. There are many examples of people, academics, athletes and entertainers who have changed their condition through hard work and self-determination. Perhaps he may not see them from where he sits, but I see them in neighborhoods and communities in the inner city and the rural communities.
Mr. Gingrich’s solution to the problem: putting children to work. What Mr. Gingrich fails to acknowledge is that many times these children that he is recommending work as janitors in schools, are already taking on the task of helping to run a household and care for siblings while the parent or guardian of the home is making paltry wages in an effort to provide for their families. He is clearly out of touch with the people he is unfairly targeting. His proposal would not only restructure child labor laws, it would also eliminate unionized janitors; both of these issues having been objectives of conservatives for quite some time now.
A story recently caught my attention about a Kentucky church that banned interracial marriage in an, “attempt to promote greater unity among the church body and the community (they serve),” This came in response to a request from a member of their congregation, a Caucasian woman, who is engaged to a man whose birthplace is in Zimbabwe. Only 15 members of the congregation voted on the proposed language, with nine in favor. The rest of the congregation chose to refrain from casting a vote on the matter. It is disgraceful that an institution that teaches principles such as loving thy neighbor and having compassion for others would decline to join two people in marriage because of a superficial difference between them.
Again, I declare that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Unless we relinquish efforts, at all levels, that disenfranchise voters and discriminate against the people of our communities, we will fail to live up to the very principles of which this great country was founded. Certainly the Constitution gives the inalienable rights to ALL of the citizens of these United States to live free lives in pursuit of happiness. That being said, I believe it is the responsibility of all elected officials to represent the best interest of the people. We should keep the process honest and fair for all. If the entire eligible Pennsylvania constituency cannot exercise their right to vote, how then is the democratic process true to our way of life?