Dear Tanenbaum Community –
When I first registered to vote I knew it was a responsibility. I knew voting was a right I was given that was fought for by people I would never know. I never thought of voting as a privilege. I’m an American, and, being able and expected to vote was my duty. This has not been the case for many over the course of our country’s history.
Days after the 2016 election, Angela Davis addressed over 1,600 people tightly packed into the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel. Her words to the crowd were a reminder that in an election, we can’t underestimate “the extent of the ideological influences of racism, of islamophobia, anti-Semitism, heteropatriarchy, xenophobia.” Davis added that, “this is a time to reflect on the extent to which we are living with the relics and ghosts of slavery.”
Since our country’s inception voting was not, and is not, a default right for all American citizens. The U.S. Constitution originally left it to states to determine who is “qualified” to vote in elections. For decades, state legislatures generally restricted voting to white males who owned property. Some states also employed religious tests to ensure that only white Christian men could vote.
Many religious, racial, ethnic, and gender minorities have historically been kept from voting for one reason or another:
- It was not until the 15th Amendment was passed in 1869 that African-American Christian men were allowed to vote. But even so, many would-be voters faced artificial hurdles like poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures meant to discourage them from exercising their voting right.
- Women were denied the right to vote until 1920, when the long efforts of the women’s suffrage movement resulted in the 19th Amendment affording white women the right to vote.
- In 1908 when New York City was in the midst of its biggest wave of Jewish immigration, city officials, worried about the potential electoral boost these new immigrants would have on the upcoming Presidential election. Strict voter registration requirements were already in place in New York, forcing residents to register every year, and then another hurdle was introduced, one that could only be seen as a way to disenfranchise Jewish voters specifically, Registration days were set for Saturdays, and once a year on a Monday—except that the Monday in question was Yom Kippur. This obvious attempt to suppress Jewish votes was not unusual at the time.
- Despite the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, many Native Americans living on reservations continued to be excluded from the democratic process. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped to secure and protect that right for many Native Americans and Alaska Natives. With the Voting Rights Act, voter participation among Native Americans increased. However, the Supreme Court invalidated the Section 5 preclearance formula in 2013 (Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013)), removing one of the most powerful tools to ensure equal access to the ballot, including Alaska and Arizona, and two jurisdictions in South Dakota with significant Native American and Alaska Native populations. Since the Shelby County decision, efforts to suppress the vote have increased. For Native Americans, these voter suppression efforts can and do have devastating impacts.
- According the Center for American Progress, under the guise of tackling voter fraud, 14 states adopted measures to restrict voting ahead of the 2016 election. These measures, including strict voter ID requirements and reductions in early voting opportunities and polling places, creating barriers for tens of thousands of low-income citizens and citizens of color.
- In the primary election of June 2020, of the more than 200 absentee primary ballots that were disqualified in Lackawanna, a town in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metropolitan area, all 200+ had an “overtly Muslim/Middle Eastern sounding name”, according to a national Muslim rights organization that is now calling for an investigation.
- Black churches and other faith-based organizations continue to hold get-out-the-vote events. Members of the clergy work alongside lawyers who are experts in fighting voting suppression. Like the civil rights leaders before them, they are not telling people how to vote. They are fighting for the right itself.
In a democracy, voting is communal. Voting is a responsibility for members of the democracy. Regardless of your current status of the privilege or right to vote, every vote matters as it is cornerstone in our democracy. And we know the foundation is strong when there are no barriers to people to act on their responsibility.
So, stay informed! Read up on political issues (both local and national) and figure out where you stand. Talk to people. Even if you cannot vote, you can still voice opinions on social media, in your school or local newspaper, or other public forums. And VOTE NOW! The election is not “happening” in 6 days, it’s happening now and it’s over in 6 days!
Rev. Mark Fowler