The Disenfranchisement of My Daughter

Growing up in Mississippi and North Carolina in the late 1950s and early
1960s, I have vivid memories of African-Americans hoping to participate
in their first election being turned away at the polls, denied their most
basic right to vote.

Little did I know that near fifty years later, in 2008, my daughter would
similarly be prevented from voting.

Growing up in Mississippi and North Carolina in the late 1950s and early
1960s, I have vivid memories of African-Americans hoping to participate
in their first election being turned away at the polls, denied their most
basic right to vote.

Little did I know that near fifty years later, in 2008, my daughter would
similarly be prevented from voting.

Her entire adolescence has been under the shadow of the Iraq War, just as
my youth had been under the shadow of the Vietnam War. (See my article:

A Letter to my Daughter: We Tried to Stop This War.) Rather
than becoming angry and cynical, however, Kalila threw her youthful
idealism into the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, who opposed the
invasion, called for change and promised hope for a better future.
She spent countless hours making phone calls, volunteering at campaign
offices, and even skipped a couple of days of classes at her California
high school in January in order to travel to Nevada to campaign for Obama
in the caucuses.

Though I had volunteered in the presidential campaign of George McGovern
in 1972, I was too young to vote that year and subsequent Democratic
nominees have failed to inspire me. As a result, I was quite
pleased that my daughter would be able to cast her first vote for someone
she actually believed in.

Moving to the Midwest to enter college in August, Kalila again became
involved with the Obama campaign in the run-up to the general
election. Now living in the swing state of Indiana, she decided to
register to vote there.

It was not that easy, however.

Earlham College is located on the western edge of Richmond, a small
rust-belt city near the Ohio border. The lack of adequate public
transportation made it difficult for her to get downtown to the Wayne
County Courthouse to register. She discovered that in order to
register by mail, she needed to provide a utility bill for proof of
residence, which was not available for those living in college
dormitories. She had heard stories that at Earlham and a number of
the other private liberal arts colleges located in Republican-dominated
counties in Ohio and Indiana, registration cards collected on campuses
had sometimes mysteriously disappeared. So, she decided to register
at the nearby Townsend Community Center, where she volunteers once a week
in the America Reads program.

Delighted with the fact that she was turning 18 less than a month prior
to the election, Kalila had been anticipating her first vote with
unbridled enthusiasm. You can imagine my shock when she called home
in tears early Tuesday morning saying that she had gone down to her
precinct and had not been allowed to vote, having been told there was no
record of her registration.

I immediately got on the phone, making a series of calls to try to
rectify the situation, with the kind of passion and determination which
can only come from a father whose beloved daughter has been
wronged. I was able to make little headway, however. The
voter suppression hotlines were jammed and the Indiana Democratic Party
headquarters was not particularly helpful either, as all the numbers they
suggested I call either went unanswered or connected me to voice
mailboxes that were full.

As I should have realized, however, Kalila was hard at work
herself. Missing her classes that day, she went by the county
clerk's office, normally open from 9:00 to 5:00 on weekdays, only to find
it inexplicably closed. At one point, she returned to her precinct
requesting a provisional ballot, but she was refused. She sought
help from the Obama campaign office and from lawyers they had on
call. (During breaks in this arduous process, she worked the phones
at the office to help get out the vote in Indiana and Ohio.)

Eventually, with two attorneys in tow, she returned to her precinct a
third time and again demanded a provisional ballot. Finally, she
was allowed to cast her vote. Given that all the races were decided
by a bigger margin than the number of provisional ballots, however, they
will presumably be thrown out and her first votes will never be tallied.

Because of the decisive margin of Obama's victory, little attention has
been paid to the widespread voter suppression which took place across the
country this election. Kalila told me about other Earlham students
registered in Richmond who were also turned away at the polls and
classmates registered in their home states whose absentee ballots arrived
too late. A number of longtime city residents who also registered
at the Townsend Center, which primarily serves Richmond's
African-American community, were turned away as well.

There have been countless stories across the country of missing
registrations, malfunctioning voting machines, polls opening late,
insufficient numbers of ballots or voting machines, voter harassment and
other issues, almost all of which took place in predominantly Democratic
precincts. And I can't help but think about all the people who
didn't have Kalila's knowledge, resources, persistence and spunk to
successfully demand at least a provisional ballot.

Yes, Obama ended up winning in Indiana and the rest of the country.
But there will be future presidential elections that will be a lot
closer. And, as I am writing this, important Senate races in
Minnesota, Georgia and Alaska are so tight that the winners have yet to
be finalized.

As a native Southerner, I recognize more than most the importance of
defending the right to vote. I remember people dying for that
right. Had she been a college student in 1964, Kalila would have
likely been among the hundreds of young idealists who took part in
Mississippi Summer and other voter registration drives of that

Yet defending the right to vote is more than just principle. It is
also smart politics. Indeed, it is one of the most important issues
there is. For if voter turnout in the United States was as high and
as representative of the overall population as it is in almost every
other industrialized democracy, the politics of this country would be
very different.

Not only would the presidency of George W. Bush and its ensuing disasters
have never taken place, Congress and most state and local governments
would be far more progressive than they are now. Americans not
voting under the current system tend to be disproportionately young,
minority or poor, the very constituencies which tend to vote towards the

It is time to question why people need to go through the cumbersome
process of registering to vote ahead of time. Almost every other
country with democratic elections allows for same-day registration.
This would dramatically increase overall turnout and would make it
impossible to prevent people like Kalila from voting because of supposed
missing registration forms.

President-elect Obama is a former community organizer, who for a time
directed Project Vote! in South Chicago. That experience taught him
that the way the Democratic Party can win elections is not just through
fighting for the small number of swing voters in the middle, but by
expanding the party's base through increased voter registration and
turnout. It was this formula which helped provide him with his
impressive victory on Tuesday.

As a result, we will soon have a president who is more sympathetic to
overhauling the electoral system to make sure that it works and that it
is more representative. Having a larger and more inclusive
electorate will result in a substantially higher number of progressive
office holders, thereby making our work on virtually every other policy
issue easier. We must therefore take advantage of this
unprecedented opportunity and make this a political priority in the
coming months, for the sake of my daughter and for everyone who still has
faith in this country and wishes to exercise their right to vote.

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