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Purple fingers, black eyes

On July 9, 1965, Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana made a speech on the House floor endorsing the Voting Rights Act proposed by President Johnson. He described the many African-Americans who were barred from voting in his district in New Orleans, and concluded: "I shall support this bill because I believe the fundamental right to vote must be a part of this great experiment in human progress under freedom which is America."

His House colleagues gave Boggs a standing ovation and passed the bill by an overwhelming margin a few weeks later. Rep. Emanuel Cellar, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Boggs' speech "will go ringing through the ages."

Hale Boggs was Cokie's father, and for 45 years, Cellar's words proved true, as America steadily expanded and protected the right to vote. Until this year. This year, Hale Boggs' words are ringing hollow. America's "great experiment in human progress" is being badly tarnished by a cynical, calculated campaign to restrict "the fundamental right to vote."

A comprehensive study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University finds that 19 new state laws and two executive orders enacted this year "could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012."

This is far more than an outrageous attempt to rig the next election. It is a tragic violation of core American principles. How can we possibly promote democracy abroad when we violate such basic rights at home?

Supporters of the new laws say they are necessary to combat voter fraud. But that, to put it bluntly, is a lie.

There is no evidence -- none -- that fraud is a major problem in any state. Rolling Stone magazine reports that "a major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 (during a Republican administration) failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter, which the anti-fraud laws are supposedly designed to stop."

Here's the real story: These new laws are promoted by a well-orchestrated and well-financed effort to discourage voters who tend to favor Democrats. As Bill Clinton told a group of student activists last July: "Why is all of this going on? This is not rocket science. ... There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today."

The facts back him up. The Brennan Center reports that "these new restrictions will fall most heavily on young, minority and low-income voters." Obama received 53 percent of the overall vote in 2008. But two-thirds of voters between 18 and 29 backed him. So did three out of four voters making under $15,000 a year. Blacks supported Obama at a 95 percent rate, Hispanics at 67 percent and Asians at 62 percent. No, it's not rocket science.

The campaign to hinder these voters flows from three factors: Obama's success at registering and energizing marginal groups; Republican victories last fall in governorship and state legislative races; and financial support by a secretive group called the American Legislative Exchange Council. As Rolling Stone reports, the council is "funded in part by David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who bankrolled the Tea Party."

Elections have consequences, and Republicans who won last year have every right to advance their legislative agenda. But the great test of democracy is not majority rule; it is the defense of minority rights. And winners have no right to use their power to change the rules of the game and undercut the electoral clout of the losers. That's a profound perversion of democracy, but it is happening.

Seven new states will now require voters to produce a photo ID, but 21 million people, or 11 percent of the population, don't have them. (In Texas, a concealed weapon permit works, but a student ID doesn't.) Three states now make voters prove citizenship and two make it almost impossible for convicted felons to regain voting rights. Several states, including Florida and Ohio, have made it harder to register or cast ballots early.

This miscarriage of justice should not be allowed to stand. The Justice Department should challenge these laws in court and judges should strike them down. A country that once cheered the purple fingers waved by voters in Iraq is giving itself a bad black eye. And it won't wash off.


Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at