Sunday, November 1, 2015

Honor the Past, Support the Future: Vote!

Election Day is Tuesday. 

And yes,  I can vote. 

And will.  

Too many people went too long without that right for me to take it lightly.

In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. . . . If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”  

The ladies were not “remembered” when it came to the Constitution, an important point rarely mentioned by those who treat that document as sacred text. The war to end taxation without representation did little to ensure fair voting rights for all.

In 1848, a woman’s rights convention gathered in the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, N.Y with almost 200 women in attendance “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances should be required reading in every American history class, a reminder that even those who fight for freedom are often thinking of their own freedom, not the rights and freedom of others.

For the next 72 years, Women’s Rights Conventions were held each year,  with women gaining the votein newly formed states and territories like Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870) and Washington (1883).  States where democracy was the oldest were among those most reluctant to grant women the vote: Pennsylvania voted NO on a women’s suffrage referendum in 1915, despite a highly organized statewide campaign. Four years of hard work later, Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment, and Pennsylvania was the sixth state to ratify it, to in June, 1919.

Votes for women came painfully slowly. Votes for other groups seemed to come more quickly, but with more ongoing backlash, and more violence along the way. Early state constitutions extended the right to vote to all free male adult property owners, regardless of ethnicity or country of origin. By the time of the Civil War, property ownership as precondition had been removed, but  states and territories had imposed other conditions: poll taxes, literacy requirements, religious restriction banning “non-Protestants.”  

The Reconstruction Act of 1867 required the former Confederate states to approve new constitutions ratified by an electorate that included black as well as white men, and to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which made clear that former slaves were to be given status equal to other citizens. 

That was swiftly followed by the Fifteen Amendment, which states “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

And that Amendment was swiftly followed by a host of state and local laws designed to exclude “certain elements” from access to the vote: arbitrary literacy tests, limited hours for voter registration, burdensome poll taxes. Mississippi, where  90 percent of black voting-age men registered to vote in the years following the Civil War, cut that number to less than 6 percent by 1892. It has never since been as high as 90 percent.

I was eight in 1964, the summer three civil rights activists were murdered in Mississippi while registering black voters. One, Michael Schwerner,  was from my hometown of Pelham, New York, classmate and friend of one of my uncles. He, James Chaney  and Andrew Goodman were missing for 44 days before their bodies were found buried deep in an earthen dam. They had gone to investigate the burning of a black church, had been arrested by police on trumped-up charges, and then released to the waiting Ku Klux Klan.

According to the coroner’s report, the two northern white men, Schwerner and Goodman, had each been shot once in the heart. James Chaney, the black man from Mississippi, had been shot three times and badly beaten. The doctor who examined his body testified: “I have never witnessed bones so severely shattered.” 

In 1969, after years of legal dodges and great public outcry, TheFifth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals ruled: "we find ample proof of conspiracy and each appellant's complicity in a calculated, cold-blooded and merciless plot to murder the three men.” 

Of the more than twenty men implicated in the deaths, none were convicted of murder, and only six served time, none more than six years. 

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a response to the escalating violence that flared into national view during the events surrounding the march on Selma. The Act attempted to put an end to discriminatory election practices, outlawing poll taxes and literacy tests, with the force of federal prosecution and both civil and criminal penalties. It provided immediate relief from obstacles to voting, but also put in place a preclearance mechanism for certain states and jurisdictions to prevent passage of new election laws and procedures that would thwart the act’s intent and create new barriers to inclusive elections.

The Act was renewed and amended in 1970 and 1975, renewed and amended for 25 years in 1982, reauthorized again for another 25 years in 2006

Seven years later, on June 25, 2013, in Shelby County vs. Holder, the Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Act, invalidating Section 4, which defined which jurisdictions required pre-approval of election law. The ruling required Congress to establish new criteria before pre-approval rules could be applied.
A Voting Rights Amendment Act was introduced in Congress in January 2014 and again in January 2015. An even stronger Voting Rights Advancement Act was introduced in June 2015.  Voting rights advocates across the country have called for passage of those bills, to little effect. Meanwhile, legislators across the country have produced a flurry of election law bills, many that would limit voter access, others that would make voting more accessible.

On this All Saints Day, I find myself pausing over the names of those who saw the opportunity to vote as essential first step to a life of full inclusion.

I marvel at the perseverance of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Jeanette Rankin, Alice Paul, Lecretia Mott.

And I’m humbled by the courage of  Chaney, Shwermer and Goodman, Medgar Evans, Martin Luther King, so many more, known and unknown.

For them, the right to vote, for themselves and others, was an all-consuming vision.

For too many of us, it’s a minor interruption, an aggravating obligation tacked on to an already too-busy day.

Yes, our system of democracy, especially here in Pennsylvania, makes informed voting hard.

We have elections on one mid-week work day, difficult for those who work long shifts, travel long distances to work, juggle public transportation, child-care, inconvenient work hours.

And we have many levels of elected officials – more in the US than other countries, more in PA than any other state.  

And yes, it’s difficult to find objective information about all those candidates. Hard sometimes even to understand the office they’re running for. (Prothonotory? Really????).

I confess, sometimes I don’t vote the person, I vote the idea: for the less-dominant party, for the independent candidate, for candidate from an under-represented population.  For the candidate who DIDN’T engage in personal accusations.

But I also spend time at least trying to make an informed choice: 
  1. Locate my pollingplace (and polling place number)  
  2. Check my local ballot (in some places, Vote411 is helpful. Or google “county name sample ballot”. Here’s Chester County’s.) 
  3. Read the candidates' websites. 
  4. Look to see who endorses them and why. (For the PA Judicial Races, the PA Bar has provided PAVoteSmart, which contains candidate recommendations for PA Supreme Court, Superior Court,  and Commonwealth Court.
And yes, I vote. Knowing the system is imperfect. 

Knowing my vote, alone, counts for little.

Doing what I can to honor sacrifices of the past.

Offering what I can to support the voting rights of the future.

Other recent posts on PA politics:

Earlier posts on elections and voting: 
Additional issues posts are listed on on What's Your Platform?