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COL The right to vote should be clear to all

By Mary Sanchez

The right to vote should not be controversial. Not here, not in the United States, not on the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (Aug. 6).

And yet, listen to what is being heard by a national commission studying voting rights:

An Arizona election official reported questioning the citizenship of about 90 percent of the voters. Who are these questionable voters? They are the first Americans; members of the Apache nation. Their tribal identification cards do not have enough information to meet new state criteria intended to weed out voter fraud.

There were also stories of native people born on tribal lands who lack birth certificates to prove they are in fact, U.S. citizens and eligible to vote.

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Or, poor white rural voters who have post office boxes, instead of numbered addresses, also a problem in places when poll workers insist on a home address for identification.

Some Latinos in Nevada, reportedly were told they can only vote once; so some people voted in the primary election and then did not vote in the general election.

Or, people inaccurately being told -- and unfortunately believing -- that they needed a driver's license to vote.

And there were reports of Latinos filling out voter registration forms, then later finding their forms in a dumpster.

Or, being told the polls would stay open until 9 p.m., so they could come after finishing a day at work. When the workers arrived, the polls had been closed for several hours.

Newer immigrants, many of them Spanish-speaking Latinos, or people speaking Asian languages, do not always get the language assistance required under the Voting Rights Act, speakers have been telling the commissioners.

Members of the National Commission on the Voting Rights Act heard these and other stories during their first two hearings.

More meetings are scheduled throughout the country this summer and fall. The hearings are leading up to the Congressional reauthorization of portions of the Voting Rights Act in 2007.

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The problems appear to be nationwide, something that surprised the commissioners, said Jon Greenbaum, director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Just to be clear; minority people's right to vote does not have to be re-approved by Congress. That is an old Internet-fueled hoax that has spread for years among black communities.

But the very portions of the Voting Rights Act that are up for re-authorization are needed to address the problems. Things like the government's right to send election examiners and observers where they suspect abuses.

And the provisions that order bilingual language assistance in areas with high concentrations of non-English speakers.

For those who question that, recall the last ballot you read on a complicated zoning or bond issue. The legal wording is often confusing to U.S.-born, highly literate English speakers. Imagine if English was not your first language? If say, you arrived in the United States as an adult immigrant. These citizens have the same right to vote as anyone else.

As of 2002, jurisdictions in 30 states fell under the language provisions. Prior to the Voting Rights Act, many tricks, even outright violence, kept blacks from voting.

Remember literacy tests; insane provisions where black people were asked to recite documents like the Declaration of Independence, and when they couldn't, were told they were not eligible to vote. People were even murdered for registering black votes in the southern states.

Clearly, many of the current problems do not rise to that level. In fact, some problems are not intentionally designed to keep people from voting. But intent is not the issue. Result should be the focus.

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Congress should remember that people died so all citizens, regardless of race, would have the right to vote. No one, not by default or design, should stand in the way today.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Her e-mail address is msanchez@kcstar.com.

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