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Today’s Photo ID Laws Are Yesterday’s Beans in a Jar

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By Augusta Y. Thomas

I can still recall the first time I saw what state-sanctioned discrimination looked like.

Growing up in rural Kentucky in the first half of the 20th century, I witnessed firsthand the extreme measures that elected officials would take to prevent African-American men like my father from voting.

They made him guess the number of beans in a jar. Regardless of how many beans there were, his answer was always wrong.

They made him count straws pulled from a homemade broom. No matter how many straws they had pulled, his answer was always wrong.

Then they made him read the entire U.S. Constitution. Even though my father couldn’t read, we helped him and other men in the church memorize every word. He recited it verbatim to those election officials, yet they claimed he had mispronounced a word.

Again, always wrong. Again, not eligible to vote.

When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I had hoped we had seen the last of those tactics—of American citizens being denied their most basic right to vote because of what they looked like, what they sounded like, or where they came from.

It pains me to see that history is repeating itself yet again. Thanks to a 2013 Supreme Court decision overturning a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, 20 states will have restrictions in place this November making it harder for residents to vote.

These new laws range from strict photo ID requirements to early voting cutbacks and registration restrictions.

It may not be beans in a jar or straws from a broom. But these laws have the same intention: to suppress voter turnout among minorities, the poor, the elderly, and those registering to vote for the first time.

There is some cause for optimism, however.

In recent months, federal and state courts have struck down voting restrictions in North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Kansas and North Dakota. Texas officials have been forced to scale back a voter ID law that discriminated against African Americans and Hispanics. And in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is working to restore voting rights to 200,000 people who were formerly incarcerated who have paid their debt to society.

These are important steps, but they’re not enough. We can’t stop fighting until every citizen is able to walk into the voting booth on Election Day and cast his or her vote without restrictions.

Voting is a right that no one should be able to take away. Not with a jar of beans, or straws from a broom, or even a photo ID.

Augusta Y. Thomas is National Vice President for Women and Fair Practices at the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 670,000 federal and D.C. government employees nationwide. This article first appeared on