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 period.
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 left.
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.