In 1965, fewer than 2 percent of eligible African Americans living in Selma, Ala., were registered to vote. As we all know, this was the result of laws and policies whose purpose was to keep African Americans out of the voting booth. It took decades of blood, sweat and tears to reverse this deeply embedded discrimination. Having lost my father to that struggle when I was still a small child, I cannot begin to express what it meant to see a black man take the presidential oath of office in 2008.
What a difference eight years makes. While Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, fewer than 80,000 votes divided among Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan made Donald Trump the electoral college winner. In each of these states, Clinton saw a significant decline in minority vote totals of 10 percent or more. And in each of these states — along with swing states North Carolina and Florida — that difference in turnout may be attributed to legislative efforts to make it harder to vote. In fact, a federal appeals court described North Carolina’s lawmakers as targeting minority voters with “almost surgical precision.”
While we can’t know how those affected would have voted, we can agree that every citizen should have the unfettered opportunity to vote. Indeed, my concern is not how people vote, but simply that they vote.
No one could have done more to call attention to the importance of maximum participation in the election than President Obama. The president told an African American audience that “if you care about our legacy, realize everything we stand for is at stake. . . . I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy, if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election.” In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama said: “When any American, no matter where they live or what their party, are denied that right [to vote] because they can’t afford to wait for five or six or seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals.” And he doubled down in his most recent State of the Union: “We’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder. We need to modernize it for the way we live now. This is America: We want to make it easier for people to participate.”
Fortunately, President-elect Trump agrees. Throughout the campaign, he consistently reminded the electorate that the system is broken.
Even more fortunately, it is indisputable that nonpartisan, common-sense solutions are available. In 2014, as the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act at the LBJ Presidential Library, former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton endorsed my friend Andrew Young’s proposal that all citizens be able to obtain a photo ID card that would meet the voting requirements in every state. Following the event, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly voiced his support for the plan, saying they were “doing the country a service” and declaring, “Let’s get the pictures on the Social Security card, stop the nonsense and be a responsible country.” As Young has said, “The challenge with voter ID laws isn’t the requirement to show ID, it’s that so many people lack ID. That is the problem that needs to be fixed — and not just for voting. In today’s world, you can’t open a bank account without a photo ID — and the only people happy about that are check cashers.”
All Trump has to do is direct the Social Security Administration to add a photo to the Social Security card of any citizen who needs it. Carter said if he were president he would sign that executive order “in a New York minute.” The likely cost of this move — about $18 million — would be virtually insignificant given the benefit of ensuring that every citizen has the opportunity to exercise his or her right to vote.
Here’s another simple act the new president can take. He can direct the State Department to waive the $55 passport card fee for low-income Americans. Passport cards with photos are readily available at more than 9,000 post offices, even if a person doesn’t have any other form of photo ID. Either approach is within the president’s authority and would impose minimal costs to secure the most fundamental right for all Americans — a right that most people consider priceless.
Many people are concerned that our new president could undo much of what the outgoing president has achieved. But in the area of voting rights, I am the opposite of concerned; I am hopeful in recognition that there is an opportunity to build a better system. And because Trump surely knows that if you build a hotel, you have to fill the rooms, I hope he also agrees that when you build a democracy, as my father, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) did a generation ago, you have to fill the voting booths.
Because at the end of the day, the right to vote is not a Republican right or a Democratic right — it is an American right. If Trump enables more Americans to exercise that right in future elections, he will be able to say that in no small measure he really did make America great again.