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The Bangor Daily News (Maine)

US Voting Access A Work in Progress

Last week the Pew Center on the States sponsored a summit called "Voting in America - The Road Ahead," which detailed our ballot booth access inconsistencies. And it wasn't just about Florida's shenanigans in 2000 or Ohio's in 2004. They called for systemic change of our election process and the elimination of voter disenfranchisement.

The problem is, we've got a backward way of voting in this country. Here, people have to register to vote. That may sound perfectly reasonable but it isn't. It only allows us to pretend that we've eliminated all barriers to voting.

Because you no longer have to be a white, land-owning male or pass literacy requirements or pay a poll tax, we pretend that the registration waiting periods and jurisdictional inconsistencies are fair. In the U.S., the world's largest so-called democracy, we're supposed to have "universal suffrage" but we don't. If you don't register to vote, you can't vote.

In other democracies, a person comes of age and - poof - they can vote. It's that way in every other industrialized nation on the globe. In fact, according to former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, whose 2001 National Election Commission studied voting access in the United States, "the registration laws in force throughout the Unites States are among the world's most demanding ... [and are] one reason why voter turnout in the United States is near the bottom of the developed world."

Today we have the ability electronically to track who is old enough to vote and we can track where folks live - but if all that seems too intense or intrusive - we simply could copy the policies of one of the newest "democracies" on the planet.

Remember Iraq's first democratic election after the fall of Saddam? Remember seeing all those purple fingers once the folks had voted? Purple ink meant "you don't get to vote again." No purple ink meant "here's your ballot, vote your conscience and have a nice day."

Ironically, before that pesky civil war, nobody had to register here either. White rich guys just went in and expected that they would be able to vote. Kind of the way it is done now in Maine only without the bigotry or the proof of residency. Before that war, we had a racist, sexist, classist type of same day voter registration.

The fact is, the greatest enemy to our democracy isn't any dictator from overseas, but our old domestic enemy: Jim Crow.

Yeah, as fast as the blacks were enfranchised schemes were invented to deny their votes. And that's nothing compared with the coincidental and prolonged denial of rights from our native brothers and sisters. Additionally this brown versus white issue got further complicated by classism; as the ruling class found it necessary to keep the poor and the immigrants from voting as well.

And to this day these laws doubly discriminate against certain women. A policy paper from New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice states, "The ‘no match, no vote' rule in some states is one example that especially harms Latinos, Asian Americans, and married women."

See, clerks often have trouble correctly spelling the names of certain ethnicities and consequently when they show up to vote on Election Day they are denied access because the name on their IDs doesn't identically match the local records. Additionally, many newly married women who take their husband's name also are rejected.

As a result of all these election hurdles an estimated, again from the Brennan Center for Justice, "fifty million Americans are not registered to vote ... nearly a third of eligible citizens."

One of the conference presenters was Christopher Edley Jr., dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and a member of the Obama-Biden Transition Project. His job is help the new president refranchise the disenfranchised. But he cautioned that with the wars and financial disasters the new president has to face, election reform may get set aside.

How shortsighted! As Dean Edley asked in his opening statement, "Should local officials in Florida be able to make decisions that change the course of the U.S. election process?"

Maybe if we'd had universal voter enfranchisement, the new president wouldn't have inherited such a mess.

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Pat LaMarche

Pat LaMarche

Pat LaMarche is an author, activist and advocate. She is the author of "Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States."  Her new novel, The Magic Diary, is due out in late spring.

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