Written by Mary Buffett
Back in the summer of 1964, hundreds of young college students ventured down into Mississippi to register African Americans to vote. Until that time, the regional construct of Jim Crow laws denied the rights of basic citizenship to millions of African Americans. Anytime people of color tried to register to vote, they were met with open hostility. Their names were published in local newspapers and they were at great risk of losing their jobs. They were forced to take literacy tests that Harvard professors often failed. Poor folks of every race were barred from voting due to the poll tax, where voters had to pay a special fee in order to walk into a voting booth.
During that summer of 1964, these college students who came to Mississippi were met with resistance from the White Establishment and skepticism from local African Americans, who felt that they would be left vulnerable after these kids returned to college. Early on, three young civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were brutally murdered by elements of local law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan. Their disappearance was met with outrage and their memory would help pass the 1964 Civil Rights Acts and the 1965 Voting Rights Acts.
These young college students and the African Americans who attempted to register found themselves on the right side of history. It was the Klan, local Sheriffs, and the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, and others that deservedly ended up on the trash heap of history.
The right to vote freely is the cornerstone of our democracy. Throughout the history of the United States, it has expanded to become more inclusive. At first only white men who owned property or paid taxes could vote. After the Civil War, African Americans theoretically gained the right to vote, although most were barred for generations until the 1960’s. Women earned the right to vote in 1920 and our nation was transformed. In 1971, the overall voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 so that those fighting in faraway fields had the right to vote.
Expanding voting hours and registration took place throughout the 1990s. More people used absentee ballots or postal voting. In 2008, 30% of the presidential ballots were cast prior to Election Day, verses only 7% in 1992.
However, today the caricature of the fat Southern Sherriff has been replaced by the slick-talking political operative. The days of free and open voting appear to be on the wane. Some conservatives have cooked up the fake crisis of voter fraud in order to make it harder for other Americans to vote. Those citizens who may not have the required ID to step into a voting booth fall among the young, the poor, and the elderly. They also tend to vote Democratic verses a conservative line.
A number of conservative lawmakers have made a number of controversial statements on why voter suppression is good for their cause. Governor Chris Christie called Same-Day Voter Registration a “Trick” and that the “GOP Needs to Win Gubernatorial Races So They Control “Voting Mechanisms.” One Pennsylvania state legislator said that the latest voter suppression law would lead to a Romney win in 2012—but it did not.
Since voting is actually a state matter, the United States has 50 different rules when it comes to voting regulations. Thirty-four states now have various rules when it comes to possessing identification in order to vote. Often, like in the case of Pennsylvania’s restrictive measures, they may be rendered unconstitutional only to be appealed to a higher court. In certain cases, like Texas, where a gun license can be used for identification purposes but a college ID cannot, hundreds of thousands may find themselves completely disenfranchised. Even unpaid parking tickets may bar a citizen from voting in Texas. Subtle and secretive version of “Jim Crow Light” voting laws are cropping up throughout the land. Those who live on the edges of society pay the largest price.
Organizations like VoteRiders, a California-based organization headed by Kathleen Ungar, do a tremendous job of highlighting these voter inequities. They call attention to the legislation that is bound to cause Election Day mischief. They raise a national consciousness on the issue and help provide the necessary documentation so people can vote. However, they are alone facing a tsunami of Voter ID laws.
More is needed. We need to have a national effort to counteract what has taken place in the last decade. We need to restore the millions of names that have been purged from the voter rolls.
When a 96-year-old African American woman named Dorothy Cooper could not get the ID card to vote in 2011 because the name on her birth certificate differed from her married name on some of her documents, that is horrible. When hundreds of thousands of legitimate voters are stripped from the rolls for reasons that are capricious, it should arch the back of every civil libertarian. When crazy restrictions, like unpaid parking tickets, prevent voters from exercising their national rights—it should elicit a bipartisan howl. When Americans at the edges of society, who work hard and play by the rules are denied the full benefit of their citizenship—it’s time to rise up and demanded better legislation.
However, until then, Americans will need to organize, just as those brave students did during Mississippi Freedom Summer during the summer of 1964. Until the time comes when these restrictive laws are changed for the better, we Americans will have to go into the furthest corners of society to register every last American voter and make sure that he or she can actually cast a ballot on Election Day. We must ensure that the elderly, the infirm, the young, and the poor can play the same role in this great democratic experiment as the rest of us.
So long as people fall between the cracks in our society, then we fail the vision our founding fathers presented over a quarter of a millennia ago.
Perhaps the place to start is Freedom Summer 2015.