Vote — for yourself and your community

BY STATE SEN. KWAME RAOUL (D-13)

I voted this past week, and I encourage you to do the same. With early voting available to all registered voters now through Nov. 3, we have little excuse to avoid our civic duty and cherished right.

With my ballot cast, I now turn my attention to making certain my neighbors value and exercise their hard-won right. Forty-seven years ago, Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, aimed at preventing states from imposing any voting prerequisite or racially discriminatory voting practice.

In recent months, however, we’ve seen an alarming increase in attempts to suppress voting. Under the guise of deterring fraud, 30 states have passed “voter ID” legislation, requiring voters to present certain forms of identification at the polls. Five states – Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Tennessee – have laws that do not allow a voter to cast a regular ballot without showing a government-issued photo ID, and many others are considering similar legislation. Nationwide, 11 percent of eligible voters lack a photo ID, and disproportionately, these individuals are students, the elderly, the poor and/or minorities.

While actual voter identity fraud is rare, it appears some groups want to use the issue to intimidate potential voters. In Cleveland, Cincinnati and Milwaukee, billboards declaring “Voter Fraud is a Felony! 3 Years and $10,000 Fine” recently cropped up in predominantly poor and minority neighborhoods.

I’m proud to say Illinois has taken the opposite approach – not discouraging voting, but ensuring every vote counts. In 2011, I partnered with Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25) to pass the first Illinois Voting Rights Act, designed to protect racial, ethnic and language minorities affected by redistricting. During my work on this law and in my role as chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee, I worked extensively with the Chinatown community. Previously, its population had been splintered into multiple districts to the point that residents were unable to hold any of their elected officials accountable. This kept them from being able to advocate effectively for a new library and other community priorities. Now, the neighborhood belongs to a single legislative district.

As this example illustrates, the importance of voting goes beyond electing particular candidates. It allows communities to show their strength by turning out to vote in large numbers. With several races uncontested and Illinois seeming poised to cast its electoral votes again for Hyde Park’s son, Barack Obama, it’s tempting to conclude your vote isn’t needed. It is!

While pundits and cable news focus on national controversies, decisions made at the state and local levels often have the greatest effect on our everyday lives. When we get in the habit of ignoring down-ballot races or staying home when the results seem predictable, we forfeit our input, and we lessen our capacity to hold government accountable.