Youth Justice


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“What we know about all of these voter suppression laws is that they have certain populations in their crosshairs, populations who they are trying to prohibit participation in the franchise because they fear that they will vote in a way that’s not favorable to the legislators who are enacting the legislation. …”

“We’ve got to really understand the ideology, because as we sit here and we talk about our republic and we talk about democracy, there are people who absolutely don’t believe in those principles. They believe that no one has a ‘right’ to vote. They believe that voting is a ‘privilege,’ and that privilege only should be conferred upon certain people.”

Barbara Arnwine has long been sounding the alarm about twenty-first century efforts to turn back the clock on voting rights. She recently founded the Transformative Justice Coalition after serving for many years as Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and head of its Election Protection efforts, the nation’s largest non-partisan voter protection coalition. Under her leadership the Lawyers’ Committee created a “Map of Shame” highlighting states where new or pending legislation threatens to suppress the right to vote—which, as she says, remains under attack in 2015 by forces who still believe the right to vote should stay in the hands of a precious few.

Many of the new laws making it more difficult to vote appear to be cynical attempts to blunt the political power of rapidly growing populations of people of color as our nation confronts the changing reality of who is a “minority” and who is a “majority.” Others specifically appear to target younger voters, the poor, and the elderly. Alabama made some of the latest headlines for its decision to close a wave of driver’s license offices in disproportionately Black, rural areas in October, leaving eight out of the 10 counties with the highest percentage of non-White registered voters without a Department of Motor Vehicles—making it much more difficult for residents in those counties to get their licenses and fulfill the state’s strict photo ID voter requirement. Voter ID laws are just one of the dangerous new kinds of laws threatening to disenfranchise voters. The problem they allegedly address, voter identity fraud, has been documented to be nearly nonexistent. But people of color, immigrants, poor people, and old and young voters, including students attending college away from home, are less likely to have the forms of identifications required by states’ laws and more likely to have trouble obtaining birth certificates, paying fees, or going through other hoops.

Not even voiceless children are exempted from assault. The Children’s Defense Fund has filed a friend of the court brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case, Evenwel v. Abbott, in which some citizens are suing the state of Texas seeking to change the answer to a fundamental democratic question: who gets counted as a person when states determine proportional representation?

There is a constitutional principle that elected officials represent every individual in their district, including non-voters, and the majority of states currently count all people who live in a district when drawing district boundaries. Most people are represented directly because they are voters, but those who can’t vote—children, non-citizens, formerly incarcerated people who have not had their voting rights restored, and others who are disenfranchised—are all represented indirectly. But the Evenwel case is challenging the state of Texas’s current traditional use of total population measure for redistricting in its state Senate, and seeks instead to count only citizens of voting age when drawing districts. Attacking that long-standing practice is part of a broader effort to diminish the rights of certain—especially non-White—groups and powerless groups, including children, reminiscent of other efforts to suppress voting rights. Children’s health, education, and economic security depend on healthy state budgets and good public policies. Our nation has a vital stake in the well-being of its children. But all these efforts to subvert the democratic process continue and we must fight to stop them in every form.

There has never been a safe time in America to drop vigilance about attempts to deny people the vote or fair legislative representation. As Frederick Douglass taught us more than 150 years ago, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Barbara Arnwine adds: “All of us have to be involved in this fight, because we are in an entrenched battle. The United States can’t do anything about the fact that demographic change is coming. It’s a reality, and it’s one that we shouldn’t run from. Whoever heard of a nation being ashamed of its demographics? . . . What’s more beautiful than having people of many multiracial populations and ethnic cultures? What’s more beautiful than having the mash-up of all that, and the creativity that flows from it when we work together as one? . . . This notion that it’s ‘our’ country, a ‘White country,’ that notion is dead. It’s railing against the wind to think you can stop it, but people think they can do a South Africa and have a minority rule a majority. That’s just ridiculous. It’s not going to happen in the 21st century. It’s not going to be tolerated. So we have a real fight for those of us who are justice-loving people. Our fight is to help our nation to transition from this really racially unjust nation that’s been for years into a much more just, equal, inclusive, and celebratory society.”

Find out where your state stands—and stay vigilant, educated, and ready to fight for that just, equal nation for all.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.