Uncounted: The History and Impact of Voter Supression

Recently I attended a zoom seminar presented by Humanities Washington, along with KUOW, KPBX and Northwest Public Broadcasting. The speaker’s panel consisted of Angelique M. Davis, professor of political science at Seattle University; Representative Debra Lekanoff, 40th Legislative District; Josué Estrada, University of Washington doctoral candidate in history; and Terry Anne Scott, director of African American Studies at Hood College. It was moderated by Johann Neem, professor of history at Western Washington University.

Here was the introduction to the discussion:

This year, 160 bills have been introduced in 33 states that would restrict voting—four times as many as during the same period in 2020.

American democracy is often spoken of in lofty language, but between the lines is a more troubling story of exclusion and discrimination. Historically, voter suppression has taken many forms, including limiting eligibility to white male landowners, Jim Crow-era methods like poll taxes and literacy tests, and modern-day disinformation campaigns. The conspiracy theory about a stolen election in 2020 is proving useful to bolster support for another round of restrictions.

Yet the American story is also one of progress, including women’s suffrage and the Voting Rights Act. This will be a discussion that explores the forces that push and pull on our right to vote. How does our past impede our future, both nationally and in Washington? What does modern-day voter suppression look like? Though Washington’s mail-in voting system is considered a nationwide model, what problems remain in our state? Where can we find hope? And how can we simply ensure that every vote—and every voter—counts?

What follows are the notes I took during the fascinating seminar. They are a little disjointed, but they’ll give you an idea of some of the points that were being made.

There are many ways to increase voter access. Some can be as simple as including prepaid postage. Others more complex, like making sure the polls are wheelchair accessible, and extending the hours at polling places. Here in Washington state, we have mail in ballots and ballot boxes for those who don’t want to use the mail. But even in this state, there were no ballot boxes on Native American reservations until 2016. In fact, Native Americans did not get the right to vote until 1962, 168 years after our constitution was written.

In this day and age, most people do not want to be viewed as racist, so voter suppression tactics have become more subtle. Instead of blatantly coming out and saying that the goal is to disempower people of color, or that they want to govern without the input of others, they are now using the big lie that there is voter fraud that must be dealt with. This modified message achieves the same results.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “it is still more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit voter fraud either through in-person voting or with mail ballots.”

Voter fraud should not be used as an excuse to prevent people from voting. If anything, the more people who vote, the more likely any miniscule amount of fraud would be watered down. The people have a right to speak. Every one of us.

Preventing former felons from voting is a direct attack on low income people and people of color. People in this category who want to vote are demonstrating that they want to be productive and participating members of society. This should be encouraged.

Why do so many poor people buy into the importance of suppressing votes? Because there is a psychology of white privilege and white entitlement in this country that tells them that their way of life is dependent upon the suffering of others. If minorities get to vote and influence election outcomes, they’ll overtake and pass these people, is the current thinking. But that’s absurd, because when democracy is suppressed, we all suffer the results.

Another tactic that is being used at the present is drumming into people’s heads that the system is broken, which causes some to not even participate in the voting process. THAT is what truly breaks the system.

We need to create a culture in our families and communities that voting is your power. We need to encourage that attitude at every opportunity. We need to remind people that many have died to give you the right to vote, and it is therefore our responsibility to exercise that right.

We need to closely examine our racial and social contract to understand who we consider human. Humans, by definition, should be able to vote if they’re living in a democracy. People who don’t speak the language but are still citizens are humans. People who have served their time for committing a crime are human. Indigenous people are human. Poor people are human. Women are human. People that don’t look like you are human.

When the question and answer period came about, I asked, “How do we break through the ‘I only listen to one news source’ echo chamber to allow facts about voter suppression to be heard?”

This got a lot of interesting responses. One person said that we need to advocate for voting. Another said we need to have those uncomfortable conversations, and that requires that we be informed, and know what the underlying intent is to various voter suppression laws. Speak up. Spread the word.

State Representative Lekanoff had some encouraging news for Washington state. We’re about to go through the process of redistricting, and for the first time ever, there are multiple members of the board who are people of color. I suspect a lot of lines are going to be redrawn. That makes me really happy.

I once called this country a democratic experiment, and several of my more conservative cousins were infuriated. But I still maintain that this is an experiment. It can be tampered with. It can fail or succeed. Without vigilance, it can be circumvented, as is becoming increasingly obvious. It takes all of us, actively participating, continually, to ensure that this experiment is a success.

Please vote, and engage in political protest. Participate in this experiment. Thanks.

The ultimate form of recycling: Buy my book, read it, and then donate it to your local public library or your neighborhood little free library! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

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