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A Vote of Confidence: Why We Must Safeguard the Ballot




During much of this, my second year of retirement, I have been reading the three volumes of Taylor Branch’s history of America during the years of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the struggle for civil rights. Those rights hinged on the capacity of African Americans to vote, which state governments across the Deep South, especially, had precluded through a combination of laws and social conventions, reinforced by white-on-black violence. Here is the author’s first paragraph of the preface to his concluding volume in the trilogy:

“Nonviolence is an orphan among democratic ideas. It has nearly vanished from public discourse even though the most basic element of free government – the vote – has no other meaning. Every ballot is a piece of nonviolence, signifying hard-won consent to raise politics above firepower and bloody conquest. Such compacts work more or less securely in different lands. Nations gain strength from vote-based institutions in commerce and civil society, but the whole architecture of representative democracy springs from the handiwork of nonviolence.”

I wish I had written that paragraph. First, for its elegance; but second, for its profound insight that democracy – the vote – is the most effective human invention so far that enables a society to govern itself without resorting to violence. Not that we haven’t. The Civil War killed more Americans than any in our history, and the way has been pockmarked with violence of one sort or another. But on the whole, we have done better through the ballot than the bullet.

That is why I am so dismayed by the efforts of a dozen states to make it more difficult for people to vote. More than half a dozen, mostly in the South but some along the middle and in the North, have established voter identification laws – requiring people to bring a government-issued photo ID card to the polls with them. Even where the laws have been set aside, as in Ohio, the web page for the state still says you need it — until you get to the bottom of your screen, where it says you don’t.

In Florida, former convicts who have served their time and are eligible to vote have received voter cards, then several weeks later, received letters saying, oops, they can’t vote after all. Registration activists fear urging these people even to go to the polls, afraid that showing up to vote will be used as an instance to claim fraud, or that people will be arrested on the spot, throwing their lives into confusion and distress. Of course, most of the people caught in this contradiction happen to be African American. Intentional or accidental?

Some people ask, What’s the problem with requiring a photo ID? The assumption is that getting one is not difficult or that everyone already has one. Well, no, many people do not have such. People who are in convalescent homes may not, as well as people who do not drive, who do not have bank accounts or who live in hard-to-reach rural areas, just to name a few cases. It is a middle class notion that everyone possesses, or can easily acquire, a photo ID, much less a government-issued one.

Not only do individual states make it difficult for people living in the margins to vote, in California we have made it virtually difficult to vote for local officials because these elections happen in obscure times when people are not thinking about elections. For example, after a year of media pounding about the current national elections, will people look forward to Los Angeles city elections next year? Probably only the masochistic. After I was elected to the City Council in Santa Monica in the early 1980s, one of the first actions we took changed the date of local elections from April in odd years to November in even years – coinciding with national and state schedules. Instantly, the participation in municipal voting jumped from 15 percent to 60 percent.

But that’s still not good enough. I would like to see turnout even higher. I would like to offer incentives for people to vote. I would like to declare a national holiday and have voters cast their ballot on successive weekends as in many other countries. I would like to make voting mandatory. I would even like to see fingers that have been dipped in ink!

Voting is sacred. It has been achieved only by the shedding of blood, but it is the best tool for nonviolent social change and public order. As political activists frequently say to one another, democracy may be deeply flawed, but it is the best government anyone has come up with yet.

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