Casting a ballot is a right, not a privilege.
The American Revolution, which created our nation, was a fight for self-governance.
The American Evolution, which delivered the promises of democracy to all Americans, was a longer struggle, requiring countless protests, marches, sacrifices and even lives lost, all of which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This landmark legislation became the great equalizer, bringing about the end of discriminatory practices of voter disenfranchisement. It was a victory for justice and for all Americans.
Now we face a new threat: that of an American De-volution, which could reverse nearly 50 years of progress since the Voting Rights Act.
Across the country, states have passed or have proposed new rules for voting, such as photo ID requirements and restrictions in early and absentee voting. The laws are new, but to many of us they're just the same old tricks. I remember when tactics like these were called Jim Crow.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, 10 states now have highly restrictive photo ID laws that require citizens to produce specific types of government-issued documents to vote: Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kansas, South Carolina, Alabama and Texas.
Alabama's law won't take effect this year, and others face legal scrutiny, but it's possible that the restrictive rules will affect 127 electoral votes - almost half of the 270 needed to win the presidency in 2012.
And who are the voters who will be affected? As the Brennan Center reports, more than one in 10 eligible voters in the United States do not possess the kind of IDs required by those 10 states. More specifically, one in four African-Americans, one in six Latinos and one in five Americans over age 65 lack the requisite ID.
Though it may be difficult for some of us to imagine, many of these people simply do not drive or cannot afford a vehicle and therefore don't possess a driver's license. And the process of obtaining a valid ID - even when the states issue them for free - can be costly to those on fixed incomes or for those who must take time off from work, lose wages and find the means to travel to a government agency. Often they must produce copies of items such as birth certificates, which not only cost money to reproduce but may take weeks to process.
If these added difficulties weren't discouraging enough, in Wisconsin, Mississippi and Alabama, fewer than half of all ID-issuing offices are open five days a week and none are open on the weekends. And many have irregular operating hours. The Brennan Center documented an office in Mississippi open only on the second Thursday of the month, and in Wisconsin, only on the fifth Wednesday (only four months in 2012 have five Wednesdays).
Those championing tough new voter ID laws say they are concerned about voter fraud. I've heard their arguments: "What's wrong with requiring voters to have an ID? After all, you need a state-issued ID to drive, to get on an airplane, to write a check. Why not to vote?"
Here's why. On a fundamental level, that argument confuses privileges with rights. No American has a constitutional right to drive, fly or pay by check. We do not have constitutionally protected rights to rent cars or to use credit cards. That some people think these activities are comparable to voting is alarming - and revealing.
Every American 18 or older has the right to vote. Poor Americans, black Americans, Americans who live in rural areas, Americans of every background. For decades we have recognized this truth, making it easier to vote, expanding options for casting ballots and improving access to registration. These new ID laws take us backward; they truly are nothing more than modern-day poll taxes and literacy tests.
We're watching history repeat itself.
Why now? For the same reason partisans demanded to see President Obama's birth certificate. For the same reason some whisper that the president is a Muslim: to de-legitimize those with whom they disagree. The new voter suppression movement has taken off since the game-changing 2008 presidential race, when minorities and young voters turned out in record numbers.
Most of these first-time or occasional voters cast their ballots for Obama. Very quickly, Republicans began doing their best to stop them from voting again. Even a few hundred thousand votes not counted or cast in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin could make a big difference in November.
I'll be in Los Angeles on Thursday to keynote the Western Baptist State Convention. The focus of the convention this year will be on systematic voter disenfranchisement. We as a nation must realize the suppression is spreading. According to the Brennan Center, since the beginning of 2011, at least 180 restrictive bills have been introduced in 41 states, and 19 states have cut back on voting rights in various ways.
Millions of voters are at risk, and wherever we live, we must combat voter disenfranchisement nationwide. The ability for Americans to participate in the process was won by all; we now must join together once again to ensure that it stays that way.
The Rev. Al Sharpton is the president of National Action Network and the host of "PoliticsNation" on MSNBC. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by MCT Information Services