The War on Voters

BY KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | I got my ass to the polls last week, even though there was only one race to be decided, and had my usual bad luck. For a couple of years, I’d get this one nearly deaf woman that couldn’t understand my name. It wouldn’t have been a big deal, but she was also nuts and every year refused to look at the ID I tried to show her to make things easier. She’d carry on shouting about how I didn’t live in her district until some other worker would notice the brouhaha and intervene.

She wasn’t there this time and my name was easily found, but then both of the new voting machines had broken down just before I got there, and I was stuck at PS Something for half an hour clutching my ballot, while five or six poll workers all shouted at each other and brandished pamphlets for the gizmos, while the one other voter, an elderly guy with a walker, collapsed in a metal chair.

I figured they should have served cocktails, or something. Handed around those little wienies in sauce. Or at least handfuls of Xanax. To the workers.

Finally they figured out that they had to break the seal on the box, which meant they had to spend another ten minutes hunting for the scissors: “They were right here. Have you seen them?,” before they got the one thing snipped and the other thing opened. By which time I cursed the name of the judge my neighbor had persuaded me to vote for. Whoever it was. I can’t even remember now.

All of which I suppose is a privilege. In Cuba, anybody at all can vote, but there’s only one guy to vote for. And in the US, until 92 years ago, my titted, twatted self wouldn’t have been allowed to vote at all. No business of mine what my masculine betters got up to.

Women’s suffrage (as opposed to suffering) didn’t come into effect until the late date of 1920. Black men theoretically got the vote in 1870, but in practice both black men and black women and tons of others weren’t really free to go to the polls until 1965, just before I was born, when the U.S. passed the Voting Rights Act, which finally dumped literacy tests, state poll taxes, and other restrictions set up as barriers not just to people of color, but poor people from a bunch of backgrounds as well.

For instance, it’s worth noting that long after white male voters were no longer required to own property, Connecticut adopted the nation’s first literacy test in 1855 to keep those pesky Irish Catholic immigrants from getting their vote on.

Now they’re at it again, the white male property owners, dipping deep into their bag of dirty tricks, requiring photo IDs that lots of young and urban people don’t have, what with not driving cars. They’re also demanding proof of citizenship and cutting back on opportunities for voter registration. It’s mind-blowing, a reminder of the cycles of history. And how important it is to remember no right is ever truly won. Better to think of them as temporary gains and stay engaged and vigilant.

While 41 states have passed bills restricting voting, only 17 of these will have relevant laws in effect this year with the potential to affect the election. That doesn’t sound too bad until you do the math and find these states combine for something like 80 percent of the total of electoral votes needed to win the White House.

If Florida taught us anything in the 2000 election, it’s that every vote counts. And if you don’t want Mitt Romney to be president, you have to do more than snicker at the flip-flopper changing his positions yet again, strapping his dog to the car roof, and spray tanning to appeal to Latino voters. We got a lot of laughs out of Bush Jr.’s malapropisms, and see where that got us.

Better to do voter registration, and follow that up with carpools to places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, and Colorado — wherever Republicans are disenfranchising as many people as possible — and try to support people providing remedies.

Beyond that, it’s also worth thinking about just what you’re willing to do if things go sour. In 2000, most lefties stayed home when the Supreme Court stopped the recount in Florida. Neither did they act when it was time to certify the vote in Congress, when not one senator out of the 100 stood up to protest the widespread fraud and the disenfranchisement of black voters.

Al Gore, presiding as Clinton’s vice president, was his own worst enemy, just grinning and shrugging at the protesting Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr.: “The chair thanks the gentleman from Illinois, but, hey… Let’s just get this thing over with.”

If that happens again, what will we do?