Human Rights: Time for Another Historic Step

This is a summer of historic human rights anniversaries in America.

It was 85 years ago, on August 26,1920 that the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, granting women the right to vote.

It was 40 years ago on August 6,1965 that President Lyndon Johnson signed the into law the Voting Rights Act, which in later years was strengthened with amendments to affirm the rights of non-whites to vote and to be represented fairly in government.

It was 15 years ago, on July 26,1990 that President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disability Act, guaranteeing equal opportunity for people with disabilities in public accommodations, commercial facilities, employment, transportation, government services, and telecommunications.

Today, I think we all can be pleased to say, the rights of women and non-whites to vote and participate in government are hardly questioned.

In a couple of years, parts of the Voting Rights Act will be up for reauthorization. Today, the Act is accepted as so unquestionably right that U.S. Representatives’ Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) already are stepping up to offer reauthorization legislation. Currently a commission is traveling the nation to hold hearings about the reauthorization; given the enthusiasm of Congress to move on this issue, it is likely that the Act will be reauthorized long before the commission’s report is even published.

As for the rights of voters with disabilities, progress has been made. Progress will continue to be made for voters with disabilities and indeed for all voters because of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). Already, HAVA has taken our country a long way in ensuring voters’ rights to access, accuracy, and integrity, and privacy-including independence-in casting their votes. The challenges are complex but, in advancing human rights, well worth tackling.

Technology now exists to allow our society to do what our hearts always hoped to do: meet the challenge of ensuring the dignity of every person, in voting and in life generally.

Federal money recently was made available for improving polling place accessibility. Also, the state legislature this year authorized the expenditure of federal funds to purchase assistive technologies for voters with disabilities. Starting in 2006 voters with disabilities will be able to vote privately and independently-something that people without disabilities take for granted-by using what might be thought of as a sophisticated “pen” to mark their ballots, rather than relying on someone else to do it for them. The voting equipment we will be installing in Minnesota will be a type that can be used by anyone, with or without a disability.

Polling place accessibility improvements and assistive voting technologies are just a start.

People with disabilities have raised awareness of their desire to be independent. For this they should be applauded.

They’re helping to advance human rights that probably will be appreciated by more people than currently know it. None of us can know when we might need accommodations, either temporarily or permanently. Considering our aging population, I think issues of rights for people with disabilities will become increasingly prominent.

Upon complete implementation, I believe HAVA will be viewed as a great milestone in the history of voter rights in our country. I think it will help to bring closer the day when the rights of voters with disabilities are as accepted and embraced as the rights of women and minority voters are today.

Mary Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake Township) is Minnesota’s 20th Secretary of State. Download-able press information is available at: www.sos.state.mn.us/office/bio.html.