Sunday, September 21, 2014

Who Is Allowed to Vote?

Who is allowed to vote?

Think of the wars fought, the lives lost, the years of struggle, protest, imprisonment, over that simple question.

The American Revolution comes to mind: the cry of “No taxation without representation” captured the outraged response to the idea that colonists would pay for a government they had no hand in choosing.

Yet, even after the Revolution, only six percent of the population was eligible to vote. White, literate, Protestant landowners could cast their vote, while slaves, people of color, Catholics and Jews, men without property or education, and women of every description were not offered a say, despite their own suffering in the long, hard days of war.

Those in power rarely want to share it. That principle seems true, across centuries, across continents.

It took another war before male African Americans were granted the rights of citizens with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. A half-century after that women were finally allowed to vote, after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920. The first inhabitants of our nation, Native Americans, were the last to receive the vote, under the Indian Citizens Act passed by Congress in 1924.

I recently attended an event “Celebrating the Right to Vote,” organized and hosted by our local League of Women Voters. I was moved to hear a talented young actress read the “Declaration of Rights of the Women ofthe United States,” delivered from the steps of Independence Hall by Susan B. Anthony on July 4, 1876.

I found myself wondering how many Americans have read that document, or know the story behind it.

And why it isn’t required reading in US history classes.

As Susan B. Anthony read: 
It was the boast of the founders of the republic, that the rights for which they contended, were the rights of human nature. If these rights are ignored in the case of one half the people, the nation is surely preparing for its own downfall. Governments try themselves. The recognition of a governing and a governed class is incompatible with the first principles of freedom.
 The Synchroblog topic this month is “race, violence, and why we need to talk about it.”

That post is due on Tuesday.

But Tuesday is also National Voter Registration Day.

A reminder that too many citizens (currently about one in four) are not registered and do not vote.

A governed, rather than governing class.

I’ve been wondering: is there some connection between our lack of understanding about the history of suffrage, our lack of engagement in registration and voting, and the lingering deep divides between those who enjoy and hold tight to power and those who feel marginalized and excluded?

I have no answers.

Yet – it’s interesting to consider the political scene playing out in Ferguson, Missouri.

Protests following the death of young African-American Mike Brown called attention to racial inequity in Ferguson’s governing structures:

Two-thirds of the town’s residents are black.

Its mayor and five of its six City Council members are white.

Three of the town's 53 police officers are black.

How did that inequity happen?

There are lots of ways to encourage participation, and many more ways to discourage it.

Registration, for instance: voter registration can be managed in ways that encourage or discourage participation. Some nations register voters automatically at the age citizens become eligible to vote, and allow that registration to move easily as citizens move. Some use the same number given for taxes (like our Social Security number). Some send all eligible citizens a postcard, informing them of the location of their polling place, based on the address of their last tax return.

In the US, 42% of eligible voters are not registered. And of those registered, far fewer vote than in most other developed countries.

The Voter Participation Center, attempting to track under-represented groups, has defined the “rising American electoratee”: "unmarried women, people of color and young people between 18-29.” This group makes up over half (52%) of the US population eligible to vote. 42% of this group is not registered to vote.

Transience, financial stressors, difficulty finding information, unpublicized voter registration deadlines: all conspire to keep people from the polls. 42% of the under-represented "rising American electorate" group moved between the 2006 and 2010 election.

Interesting, isn’t it? 42.1% of this group moved between 2006 and 2010. 41.9% of this group was not registered for the 2010 election.

Automatic, universal registration would be the simplest, possibly the least expensive option. But on-line registration, currently used by a growing number of states, would be a good first step. 

A Pew study of states that have enabled on-line registration found that it 
saves taxpayer dollars, increases the accuracy of voter rolls, and provides a convenient option for Americans who wish to register to vote or update their information.  . . . Online registration is cost-effective for states, convenient for voters, and secure, because it reduces the potential for fraud while improving the accuracy of voter rolls.    
Same day registration is another option, currently used by the District of Columbia and a handful of other states. Citizens need to show proof of residency and current ID. Simple safeguards are in place to provide protection from fraud.

Every state has its own rules about registration. Some, like Pennsylvania and Missouri, have deadlines far before elections. Pennsylvania’s deadline is 30 days before the next election (this year, October 6th). Missouri’s registrations must be “received before 5 pm (or normal close of business) on the fourth Wednesday prior to the election.” Good luck sorting that one out. 

New voters and newcomers to states with early or confusing deadlines often find out too late they’ve missed it. Which sometimes seems to be the point.

Beyond registration, there are other ways to make voting easier or harder, to engage voters or to exclude them from the process.

Early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and all-mail voting all make voting easier for the elderly, for workers who live far from where they work, for those whose work schedules make it hard to get to the polls, for single parents trying to balance work, child-care, and a trip to the polls.

Moving election day to a weekend (as most other nations have done), or making it a national holiday (as is the case in almost every other nation) would also make voting easier.
But some states are not interested in making voting easier.

While citizens groups around the country have pushed for easier registration and more accessible elections, legislators in some of our states have resisted efforts to broaden participation, and have instead spent a great deal of time and money passing legislation to make voting harder.

Voter ID laws, passed in states which already have low voter participation, in effect make registration much harder. Many rural and older citizens have inadequate birth documentation. Married women often have difficulty documenting name changes, and often have discrepancies between names on photo ID and other documentation.  Low income citizens often don’t have drivers’ licenses or other photo ID, and often don’t have easy ways to obtain them. The League of Women Voters has been party to lawsuits in multiple states (including Pennsylvania) offering testimony about the ways Voter ID laws disenfranchise eligible voters.

Down the street from where the body of Michael Brown lay for hours after he was shot three weeks ago, volunteers have appeared beside folding tables under fierce sunshine to sign up new voters. On West Florissant Avenue, the site of sometimes violent nighttime protests for two weeks, voter-registration tents popped up during the day and figures like the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. lectured about the power of the vote.
 In this small city, which is two-thirds African-American but has mostly white elected leaders, only 12 percent of registered voters took part in the last municipal election, and political experts say black turnout was very likely lower. But now, in the wake of the killing of Mr. Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a white Ferguson police officer, there is a new focus on promoting the power of the vote, an attempt to revive one of the keystones of the civil rights movement.
  “A lot of people just didn’t realize that the people who impact their lives every day are directly elected,” said Shiron Hagens, 41, of St. Louis, who is not part of any formal group but has spent several days registering voters in Ferguson with her mother and has pledged to come back here each Saturday. “The prosecutor — he’s elected. People didn’t know that. The City Council — they’re elected. These are the sorts of people who make decisions about hiring police chiefs. People didn’t know.”
 In Pennsylvania, prosecutors, judges, mayors, county sheriffs – all are elected.
So are the people who make the rules about elections, draw the lines for election districts, control the process, close out voices that don’t fit the current power grid.

Registering voters won’t change what happened in Ferguson, MO.

But as Antonio French, an African-American alderman from nearby St. Louis who has been documenting the protests, insists: “If people want to see change in how they're represented, they need to register and vote.”

Join me in promoting Voter Registration Day, and in encouraging eligible citizens to vote.

And join me in opposing candidates who have squandered time, trust, and resources promoting legislation that limits voting rights and makes it harder to register or vote.

Some helpful tools:

Can I Vote? website gives voter registration information by state, confirms what name and party you're registered with, and links to online registration (for states that offer it) or a downloadable registration form.

866 Our Vote  offers links to voter registration information, and offers information about absentee and provisional ballots, and how to report problems at the polls.

Vote 411 in some states and in others, (including Pennsylvania and California) Smart Voter provide sample ballots by zip code, and links to candidates’ own websites. 

The Brennan Center for Justice provides research about voting rights, election modernization, and ways to expand access and engagement. 

This post is part of the September Synchroblog on race, violence, and how to talk about it. Other posts:

This is the third in a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?" 
Earlier posts: 
What are Workers Worth, September 1, 2014
 Back to School Lament, September 7, 2014
 Privatization and Elementary Math, September 24,  2014 
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.