Voting Rights and Voting Wrongs

I’m a bit old school, having bought into the American dream a long time ago. But, near my eighteenth birthday, three long years before I could vote, I was signing up for the draft while a war was raging in Southeast Asia. It interrupted my plans for finishing college and pursuing a life I wanted. Remember that time when our dreams were put on indefinite hold?

Richard Nixon was campaigning (in 1968) that if elected President, he would end the Viet Nam war. I remember that clearly as I settled into a new Air Force barracks in Colorado. He won that election on that promise.

I can tell you that I lucked out and spent a year on the central plateau of Thailand at a gigantic city-sized air base. The term 24/7 had not yet been coined, but it was nonetheless apropos as the war planes took off and landed on that basis for bombing runs over nearby Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos.

Four years flew by quickly. The war was still raging. I came home to what seemed like a totally different world, and a bit more patriotic I suppose, just in time for the 1972 election cycle. It’s surprising how fast cynicism can return to someone. Mine happened upon seeing Richard Nixon, once again, campaigning on the promise to end the war if he the good American people would re-elect him.

And, again, Nixon was elected based on his promise (lie) to the American people.

It took me four years in uniform to learn to recognize an out and out political lie. It was my first recollection of realizing things could be legal, but not moral, correct, just or ethical. Working around the edges of the law with loopholes, by gaming the system, and purposeful vagueness in how a law is written, lives on in the lives of many Americans still today, making equality where it needs to exist in our society anything but possible.

Fortunately, in the United States of America, the Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to vote. So we have a say in who represents us and leads us. And who we elect. It wasn’t always this way.

While our founding fathers were a very forward thinking and very idealistic bunch when it came to democracy and equality compared to European governments of the time, their thinking on voting eligibility reached only to white males. Women were not included, as a matter of fact, until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1919.

Of course, slaves were not allowed to vote at all. They were considered chattel property that could be sold, traded, raped, mistreated and killed at the master’s discretion. But the enslavers used their existence to count them as three fifths of a person for purposes of counting populations during the 10-year census to determine how many seats a state would receive in the U.S. Congress (adopted in 1783). Are you doing the math?

While estimates vary because records from the period of 1750 to 1866 were less than complete, several million slaves were brought to the Americas and, of course, there was their progeny – which gave more seats to Virginia, Alabama, Georgia and the other southern states. This calculation gave more power to a section of the country that actually had fewer citizens. This along with the free labor of slavery, free land grabs from native Americans ever pushing westward, and other shenanigans allowed the South to become more powerful and less democratic. This is how manipulative Capitalism was born – the cheapest of labor, free land and resources, and greater control of laws and bank regulations because of contrived political clout. With that combination, who couldn’t succeed and get rich?

Today, in a more enlightened America – though we have a long way to go in providing all Americans the equality, opportunity and justice they were promised and deserve – it is generally accepted that every citizen over the age of 21 (unless a convicted felon) has the right to vote. What could be fairer than that?

Call me crazy, after all I’m an older retired geezer now, but there are a lot of folks today who feel that Americans are, once again, not getting what they’ve been promised.  It’s called disenfranchisement. That means, some Americans are being denied their right to vote as guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

I mean, why? Why would one person or group want to deny another person or group of people the right to vote? Some might say it’s just another way to rig the system, to grab control and outcome through less-than-fair or ethical means.

So, let’s see what all this fuss is about. Right here in the Show Me State of Missouri, House Republicans recently advanced a pair of bills that would require Missourians to present a photo ID to vote in public elections (http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/the-buzz/article55668365.html).

 

 

“A strict ID law could be expected to depress Latino turnout by 9.3 points, black turnout by 8.6 points, and Asian-American turnout by 12.5 points. Democratic turnout drops by an estimated 8.8 percentage points in general elections when strict photo identification laws are in place.” – The Columbia Missourian Feb. 10, 2016

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

On the surface it sounds innocent enough. They’re saying the purpose of this Bill is to make sure voter fraud does not exist and that we continue to have free and fair elections. So what’s wrong with that? If you are a legitimate voter, what’s wrong with having to present a photo ID at the polling place?

Personally, it doesn’t bother me.  I have one already. I never have trouble casting my vote, at the moment. But if you are poor, a minority, very elderly and have limited transportation to go to the place that makes the required ID, or all of the above, or the cash to pay the fees for the ID, that could be a problem.

But let’s ask two questions. Just how much voter fraud exists that this becomes necessary?  And, haven’t all registered voters already provided proof of citizenship and residence when they registered to vote in the first place? The fact is, voter fraud, although it exists in minute numbers, is not a problem in Missouri – or any other State for that matter. My personal revelation is that it is a ploy to disenfranchise those who usually do not vote for a particular political party or particular wedge issues.

In fact, many people believe that we should make it easier to vote.  For instance, set election days for weekends when would more would not have to take off work to vote. Other ideas include making voter registration automatic – though some states already allow registration online or by mail. Some jurisdictions allow voter registration at the DMV where people get their driver’s licenses. This is the spirit that develops greater participation in our democracy and builds citizenship. Not exclusion.

Think that’s all there is? Well, no.  Back in the days of the Old Jim Crow laws throughout the U.S. there were “tests” – literacy tests that most people could not pass, but were only given to the African Americans who arrived to vote. This helped to prevent them from casting their vote. There were other tests, like counting marbles in a jar, even though there was no way to count those that could not be seen – a guaranteed fail. And there were poll taxes that everyone knew the “wrong” folks could not afford to pay. When those didn’t work or were broken up, there was old-fashioned intimidation and threats to keep voters away from the polls. Yes, it’s not only school kids who bully. Adults have perfected this skill, unfortunately.

Gerrymandering. In the U.S.: Every 10 years when we conduct the national census we also turn on the process for setting the boundaries for electoral districts (Congressional districts, etc.). Gerrymandering is a practice that attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating the shape and boundaries of electoral districts. We’re showing some graphics here to show you how this is often done to give one group an unearned advantage over another group. It’s wrong and not within the spirit of the law. But, it is viewed by many as perfectly okay and, of course, legal because the existing laws do not forbid this practice.

Maybe I’m still a bit naïve to hope for and want honesty in our government and in our elections. While we may never be able to attain that perfection, we can work toward it by assuring that the rights our U.S. Constitution provides to citizens is always made available to them. The right to vote is crucial to the success of a democracy. Without it, we have less than that – an oligarchy, a dictatorship, or something worse. No one believes we will ever fully agree with each other politically, but we should be respectful of each other’s right to voice our opinions (freedom of speech) and our right to vote. Anything less – whether it is “bending the law,” using a loophole or gaming the system is not okay with me – and it shouldn’t be okay with you.

Let’s make it easier for all to vote instead of just some of us.

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