Razor thin Pa. victory underscores importance of voting

3/23/2018, 9:58 a.m.
“Eight days after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson spoke to a joint session of the Congress and made one of ...
Marc H. Morial

Marc H. Morial

“Eight days after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson spoke to a joint session of the Congress and made one of the most meaningful speeches any American president had made in modern time on the whole question of voting rights and introduced the Voting Rights Act. And at one point in the speech, before President Johnson concluded the speech, he said, ‘and we shall overcome.’ I looked at Dr. King. Tears came down his face. And we all cried a little to hear President Johnson say, ‘and we shall overcome.’ And he said to me and to others in the room, we will make it from Selma to Montgomery, and the Voting Rights Act will be passed.” – U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia

As the nation marks the 53rd anniversary this month of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches, the nation’s attention was riveted to a special election to fill Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district seat, widely seen as a bellweather for the upcoming congressional elections in November.

The buzz around the Pennsylvania race between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone centered on the possibility of a solidly Republican district flipping into Democratic hands. But as a civil rights organization staunchly committed to defending voting rights, we were much more interested in the voter turnout.

In the last midterm election for Pennsylvania’s 18th District, about 166,000 people voted. In this year’s special election, more than 228,000 people voted — an increase of about 37 percent. And the margin of victory there was less than one half of one percentage point.

Pennsylvania was seen as one of three states where a razor-thin margin decided the presidential race in 2016. It’s also a state where a strict voter ID law, passed in 2012 as a deliberate effort to reduce turnout among people of color, was struck down by a federal court.

Despite the court’s action, voters in Pennsylvania reported they were wrongly asked for photo identification by poll workers in the 2016 presidential election.

With the future of the nation dependent upon extremely thin margins like those in Pennsylvania, communities of color must remain vigilant. In 2016, 14 states had new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election. In 2017, seven other states added even more restrictions.

The unexpected competitiveness in the Pennsylvania race is sure to spark interest in an April 24 special congressional election in Arizona. It will be held in a district where GOP dominance was seen as so insurmountable that Democrats didn’t even field a candidate in the last two elections. Arizona has a strict voter ID requirement in place and for years required proof of citizenship until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that provision.

The National Urban League is part of the national, non-partisan Election Protection coalition, formed to ensure that all voters have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.

Election Protection focuses on the voter — not on the political horse race — and provides guidance, information and help to any American, regardless of who that voter is casting a ballot for.

Deadlines to register to vote in this year’s congressional elections are fast approaching. Call or log onto 866OURVOTE.org for help with registering, finding your polling place, voting by absentee ballot or to volunteer.

The writer is president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League.