21st Annual Dove Freedom Fund Banquet — State Rep. Darrin Williams encourages people to vote

State Rep. Darrin Williams (D-Little Rock) recently challenged more than 250 people who gathered in the Pine Bluff Convention Center arena to exercise their right to vote.

The speaker-designate of the Arkansas House of Representatives was the keynote speaker for the Pine Bluff Branch of the NAACP 21st annual Dove Freedom Fund Banquet.

There has been “a long and tedious struggle for us to have the right to vote,” he said. “We elected the first African-American president of the United States and we did so with record participation from people of color.”

Williams, who made history as the first African-American selected to be speaker-designate of the Arkansas House, said African-American women had the highest turnout of all voter groups in 2008, adding that “the right to vote is a powerful thing.”

Despite the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, he said the struggle continues for voter rights. “Several states are passing laws to make it harder and harder for people to vote,” Williams said. Some states have been trying to implement voter ID laws, citing a need to prevent voter fraud.

With so many states seeking to pass such measures, the Danville, Ark., native speculated that surely there must be an epidemic of voter impersonation. However, during investigation several years ago, the U.S. Justice Department found only nine cases of voter impersonation, he said.

Williams added that there were more reported lightning strikes and UFO sightings than cases of voter fraud.

“From 2000 to the present, instances of voter fraud have been very rare,” he said. “Why are we passing these laws and who are they likely to impact?” Young Americans, Latino Americans, African Americans and Asian Americans are likely to be affected – the same demographics that pushed Barack Obama into the presidency in 2008, Williams said.

He said that for some people, purchasing an ID can be a huge financial burden. He also said that voter fraud is a serious issue and that anyone caught committing it should be prosecuted. However, hindering someone’s right to vote should not be tolerated.

“The right to vote is so fundamental,” he said. “It is a constitutional right and we must be careful not to burden that constitutional right.”

Williams also pointed out that between 2004 and 2008, the overall percentage of people voting in Arkansas went down. While 56.7 percent of Arkansans voted in 2004, 53.4 percent voted in 2008. In 2004, 49.4 percent of African-Americans voted in 2004 and 44.1 percent voted in 2008.

However, the state faces many issues including the need to keep students from dropping out of high school, residents facing health issues and children facing disparities because of the county in which they live.

“In a country as great at America and in a state as great as Arkansas, surely we can put in a good health care system,” he said. “That’s why your vote is so important.”

Fox16 News anchor Donna Terrell, who served as banquet emcee, directed the audience’s attention to the program which featured the words Your Power, Your Decision. Beneath that were four handprints in red, yellow, black and white and letters on each that spelled VOTE.

“Some of you should early vote,” Terrell said. “Oct. 22 is the first day of early voting. Call your friends and family and tell them to early vote.”

Classie Green, Pine Bluff branch president, welcomed guests to the banquet and also emphasized voting.

“(The Pine Bluff branch) is 93 years old and still remains the largest branch in Arkansas,” she said. “We embrace our 2012 theme: “NAACP: Your Power, Your Decision – VOTE” by exercising our power, making good political decisions — voting and encouraging our family and friends to vote,” she said.

“We must move beyond the decisive politics on the local, state and national levels. May we strive to be the change that we want to see. We must hold our elected officials accountable.”

Rev. Larry Edwards Jr., first vice president of the Pine Bluff branch, reminded guests why they were gathered for the occasion. “First of all, this is the Pine Bluff branch’s 21st anniversary,” he said. “The NAACP has been around for years. Without it, a lot of us would not be here today.’

The organization helps to push through anti-lynching legislation, voter rights laws and legislation dealing with equality in education, he said.

Edwards said that the Pine Bluff branch is the largest in the state because of the leadership it has had, including Judge George Howard Jr., Judge Earnest Brown Jr. and William Dove Sr.

He said the funds generated from the banquet help carry on the NAACP’s commitment to advancing freedom and justice. “We are still fighting,” he said, adding that, “We ask that you go and vote because of the blood sweat and tears, and because it’s your reasonable service.”