Voting with Our Feet (and other essential body parts) —by Jinny Batterson
Recent retirees like me get a lot of health-related information—mailers, email reminders, targeted Internet advertising. Fairly often, these messages tout the benefits of regular exercise. Walking gets mentioned a lot—helps our circulation, requires little special equipment, can be done anywhere, anytime. So, even in the heat of summer, I try to keep up a regular walking routine. Over the past several seasons, I’ve been doing a good bit of more targeted walking, too, participating in protest marches and fundraisers for causes I think are important. One of those is global climate change; another is voting.
Last September, I joined hundreds of thousands in New York City to draw global attention both to the problems we’re creating with our profligate use of fossil fuels and to possible alternatives, including the low-tech, available-to-nearly-everyone switch to walking more and using our vehicles less. I got a walker’s high moving along with the varied and huge crowd around me, most in comfortable shoes, some with banners, others with slogans on their clothing, some coasting beside us on skates or bicycles, a few in wheelchairs.
This past week, I joined a smaller, more localized crowd in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to draw attention to the start of a federal court case considering the constitutionality of several restrictive 2013 changes in my home state’s voting laws. The weather was sultry—July in North Carolina can wilt even the most stalwart. However, organizers had ordered thousands of bottles of cool water, and we guzzled it down as we listened to speeches and songs before taking to the streets. We wanted to help reinforce the message that the U.S. Constitution has been repeatedly amended to expand, rather than constrict, the franchise. The 15th amendment gave the vote to male former slaves; the 19th enfranchised women; the 26th, ratified in 1971, reduced the voting age from 21 to 18, giving the ballot to 18 to 20 year olds, including young men subject to military conscription.
I’m most grateful that my tramps have so far been voluntary. Nowadays, a huge number of people are walking for more distressing reasons—the number of international refugees and internally displaced persons has reached a level not seen since World War II. In 2014, nearly 60 million people, about 1 in every 125, were in refugee camps or temporary shelters due to wars and ethnic conflicts around the globe. When armed conflict breaks out, many vote with their feet just to survive.
In Isabel Wilkerson’s 2011 award-winning saga, The Warmth of Other Suns, I read that nearly 6 million African-Americans voted with their feet during the period between 1915 and 1970. These participants in the “great migration” left the Jim Crow south for points north and west, pushed out by fear and discrimination, and/or pulled away by the lure of better opportunities and less blatant oppression.
During my lifetime so far, I have not been forced to vote with my feet because of wars or oppression. However, voting with a ballot is a right I no longer take for granted. Recent quantum leaps in the sophistication and prevalence of gerrymandering make it more difficult for me to cast a meaningful vote, as do both subtle and more blatant attempts at voter suppression. Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have made “voting with money” more prevalent, an emphasis I find distressing. The problem has gotten too big for any single citizen, candidate or political party to solve on its own.
At the New York City march, some carried placards proclaiming: “There is no Planet B.” On a less global level, I wonder, if we destroy our country’s democracy, what “plan B’s” await us? Our union has become considerably less perfect over the past decade or so. Perhaps we can reverse the trend—some of us may have to vote repeatedly with our feet in protest marches. We’ll also need to engage our heads, our hearts, our hands, having serious debates about vital issues, registering and voting, resisting demagoguery and pat answers, listening to each other, working together. Let’s keep walking…