Barack Obama won in 2008 because volunteers registered record numbers of voters and those voters went to the polls. Since then 31 states have passed restrictive voter ID laws, ostensibly to prevent voter fraud. Early voting now requires an excuse in Kentucky. Same-day registration was ended in Maine. Ohio stopped Sunday voting and prohibited election boards from mailing absentee ballot requests to voters. Locations to vote have been cut in targeted precincts in Colorado. I don’t think even God is eligible to vote in Pennsylvania.
When I recently arrived in south Florida, I was trained and certified to register voters. Among my first prospects was a middle-aged man who voted in 2008, but whose registration had been purged from the roles this year. There was a look of defeat in his eyes. More than 20 years ago he served time for possession of marijuana — a felony back then — and this rejection seemed to remind him of how hard it is to move past something we now would consider a minor offense.
He may face a lengthy process to have his rights restored, a predicament created when Gov. Rick Scott reinstated a lifetime voting restriction on all felons. The rule had first been revised and then eliminated by his predecessors, Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist.
In 11 states, including Florida, many of the most restrictive provisions of the new laws have been overturned or postponed by the courts in the past few weeks, but the damage has been done. Many people are afraid to vote. Others are just too bewildered or discouraged to sort through their states’ requirements.
Yet there is a quiet determination among the people I meet. They proudly show me their voter registration cards, cards that look as though they have lasted longer than several wallets. People tell me that they have been voting for 20 to 30 years.
And they want to know, “Is everything is OK?”
They are understandably worried.
I am working in one of the five Florida counties still under the jurisdiction of the 1965 Voting Rights Act for having denied access to the ballot “on account of race, color or membership in a language minority.”
When I ask people if they have moved, changed their names due to marriage, changed parties or voted recently enough to avoid a purge for inactive voters, they willingly fill out new forms and then anxiously wait for two to three weeks for a new card. I am beginning to hear from people I met when I first arrived three weeks ago who have yet to receive theirs.
These efforts at vote suppression are coordinated and intentionally targeted toward the young and the old, students, servicemen and women, the poor and minority voters. Vote suppression is one way to win an election, but it isn’t democracy.
Some view it as a game between Republicans and Democrats — how many voters can be disenfranchised through these suppression tactics versus how many can be newly registered?
This isn’t a game to me. I come from a mixed-race family. On my family tree are many who were denied the right to vote. My great grandmother, who walked to Oregon as a child in 1864, made her first and only vote for president after women were given the right in 1920. She died in 1923. My sister-in-law spent part of her childhood in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. When the Exclusion Acts were rescinded between 1942 and 1952, her American-born parents were finally allowed their right to vote. For my Objibwe father — a World War II veteran — and Native Americans generally, voting became a universal right for the first time in 1948. The 1965 Voting Rights Act is presumed to have benefited mostly African Americans, who are also on my family tree, but it secured the right for all of us by making it a federal offense to deny people of any race, color or language minority access to the polls.
I have observed suppression laws in action from Colorado to Florida and witnessed the reactions of people that I’ve registered here in Florida. When newly registered voters sign their names, they take deep breaths and smile. For some it is a prisoner’s release, an acknowledgement better than a birth certificate or a passport, of freedom.