This afternoon, I cast my ballot for Barack Obama.
Less than ten minutes after arriving my polling location, I was stating my address and handing over my identification. An enthusiastic election official complimented my passport photo and directed me to one of the many available voting booths. From behind the privacy of a partition, I made my selections. I then walked over to the optical scanning machine to insert my ballot. I was assisted by a gentleman who was ultra-cautious to look away from the paper in my hand, sending me on my way with an accented “congratulations.”
For me, there were no lines. No one tried to influence my vote by threatening my liberty, my safety or my status. Gender, race, religion, class, sexual orientation, profession, political persuasion – none of these prevented me from excercising my right to vote. Not only is my choice of candidate my secret to keep (or share!), but it also isn’t something that could cost me my citizenship or my life. Walking away, I was more or less confident that my vote was accurately counted.
Well – duh, right? I’m in America, not one of those “other” places, where intimidation is par for the course or where women and minorities are barred from voting.
Not so fast. It isn’t all democracy and free choice here in these United States. In fact, the fight against basic American rights is not just sobering – it’s frightening.
In Virginia, flyers bearing a mockup of the state’s official seal were distributed, indicating that Democrats should actually show up to vote on Wednesday — the day after election day. Latino voters have been phoned in Nevada and elsewhere, being told that they can vote over the phone rather than by showing up at the polls. Individuals have even been threatened with jail should they show up to cast their ballots.
These attempts at thieving Americans’ rights have targeted youth and minorities – groups that have come out in overwhelming support of Barack Obama. For the Republicans, there could be no greater stain on their patriotic party line than this crime against the very principles upon which this country was founded.
Disenfranchisement is nothing new. In fact, the stories you’re hearing here and on the news only begin to scratch the surface on just how disempowering the American electoral process is for many.
For as monumental as it would be for an African-American candidate to win today’s election, it is just as significant that America’s criminal disenfranchisement laws mean that 13% of African-American men cannot vote at all. We live under a criminal justice system that already disproportionately targets black men. What this means around election time is that in some states, one in five black men is stripped of his voting rights. Human Rights Watch projects that, given current rates of incarceration, some 40% of African-American men will at some point find themselves permanently disenfranchised.
Nationwide, 1.4 million Americans (of all races) are prevented from voting – despite having already served their criminal sentences. These are ex-offenders who have re-entered society and who are expected to meet other requirements of law-abiding citizenship, including the payment of taxes.
Preventing these individuals from voting serves no defensible purpose. To argue that preventing ex-offenders from voting preserves the “virtue” of the voting booth is to say that our criminal justice system is not a place for rehabilitation or reform – but merely a “holding tank” for the subhuman. It also asserts that “virtue” is effectively a qualifier for American citizenship, including for the natural-born. As uncomfortable as it may be to say so, even those we consider less “virtuous” are still entitled to basic rights granted them by their American citizenship.
“Restrictions on the franchise in the United States seem to be singularly unreasonable as well as racially discriminatory, in violation of democratic principles and international human rights law.” – Human Rights Watch
What can you do?
* Learn more from Human Rights Watch.
* The Democratic Party provides resources here.
Yes, another Rachel Maddow video. Bear with me. I’ll quit it eventually. Wait…bullpucky. No I won’t. Enjoy: