Monday, November 01, 2010

Republicans Against the Right to Vote

cross-posted at Dagblog

The first time I went to the polls on Election Day I was probably five, tagging along beside my mother. It was a brilliant November day in New Hampshire, and the polls were in a spare room of the town hall, the same room where I would go in later years for Cub Scout meetings and later still walk through on the way to help stock our town's tiny food assistance pantry. There was a larger room upstairs, where the annual Town Meeting was held and where I would someday go for Halloween parties and the soap box derby. The thing I remember most clearly was walking out of Town Hall after Mom was through voting. About ten feet in front of us, an exit poller asked an older man, a genuinely flinty-looking old Yankee, who he'd voted for. He declined to say, with a curt-and-not-unfriendly "no," and kept walking. I asked my mother why the man hadn't answered the question.

"You don't have to tell anyone how you voted," she said. As a five-year-old, I was awestruck by the idea of not having to do anything; that no one could make you was basically the most impressive thing I ever heard. I didn't know the words "inalienable" or "citizen," but the lesson got across and it stuck with me. I can still see the set of that old man's shoulders and his proud, confident stride in the autumn sunlight. It's my picture of American citizenship.

I pretty much fell in love with voting, right then. Haven't gotten over it. Never will.

Six years ago I moved to Ohio, four months before a national election: clearly long enough to establish residency to vote, but more importantly clearly too long to vote in my previous state of residence. The law was very clear about where I should be voting. But there was a problem: the Ohio Secretary of State was actively trying to discourage voter registration.

You read that right. The Secretary of State, the person in charge of state elections, wanted to keep new voters from registering, and actively tried to lay the groundwork to have voter registrations challenged and thrown out. Why? Because he was a Republican, and he thought that the Democrats' voter-registration drive would hurt his party. My favorite moment was when he declared that new voters' registration cards would be summarily thrown out unless they were on 80-pound paper stock. (For comparison, bond paper for legal documents is typically 20 or 24 pounds.) This gambit ultimately failed when it turned out that the Ohio Secretary of State's office did not actually have any paper that heavy itself. Then the Republican Party won the right to put challengers, not observers but challengers, inside polling places on Election Day, trying to get votes thrown out.

As a newly registered voter, I took that to heart. For the first time in my life, I went to my legal polling place feeling nervous about my rights as an American citizen. It was the Ohio Republican Party that made me worry about the exercise of my rights.

That was the first election that I worked as a Democratic volunteer.

The national Republican Party and the Tea Party movement both remain deeply committed to preventing other Americans from voting. They routinely use bogus accusations of voter fraud, dirty tricks, and even illegal polling-place electioneering in order to deprive fellow Americans of their most basic rights as Americans. I have met a voter who had a Republican challenger try to throw out his vote because he signed a "Junior" at the end of his name and the printed list had left out the "junior." That's the spirit of democracy right there. Two years ago, someone went through an African-American neighborhood in Cleveland and put misleading stickers on door hangers: the door hangers reminded people to vote; the stickers were added to deliberately give those voters the wrong address for the polls, hoping that those Americans would be disenfranchised. I saw those stickers myself.

There is no excuse for this. And this is not conservatism. This not American. It's an admission that the Republicans know their policies are bad, and want to prevent people from having their say. But even if the Republicans had the soundest policy ideas in the world, it would be wrong. They have no right to take away anyone else's vote.

Don't tell me about their traditional values. I grew up in a little New England town that still had a town meeting: everyone in town showed up at the town hall and voted on the budget, line by line. I know what old-fashioned American democracy looks like. This is not it. I disagree with the Republicans on policy because I'm a progressive. But it's the conservative part of me, the part that loves what is old and best in America, that actually hates them.

If the Tea Party lends itself to voter suppression and intimidation, it has no right even to speak about the Founders or the Sons of Liberty. Voter suppression is an attack on the Constitution. It is an affront to the Declaration of Independence. And anyone who obstructs another American's rights as a citizen has broken faith with America. This is not an expression of "small town values." It not traditional. It is not conservative. It is an expression of something new, and vicious. It is an expression of hatred for individual rights and personal liberty.

There are issues that require compromise, when compromise is reasonable. The right to vote is not one of them. It never will be.

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