Tag Archives: voting rights

Veterans of Domestic Elections

Veterans of Domestic Elections    —by Jinny Batterson

Last Tuesday, I got up before 5 a.m., put on multiple layers of clothes, grabbed a hurried breakfast, packed water and snacks, then headed for a nearby precinct where I was assigned to work during this year’s municipal elections. This year was the third year I’ve served as a non-partisan precinct officer during early voting and/or on election days, after receiving initial training and participating in annual refresher courses.

A touchstone of our training is to do everything in our power to allow a prospective voter to cast a ballot. As our political process has become more divisive and hyper-partisan, this can be complicated. Successive gerrymanders and court challenges have sometimes moved voters from one jurisdiction to another, even when they have not physically changed address. Economic downturns and regional disparities have caused other voters to relocate, often without the will or the resources to become aware of issues, candidates, or election dates and procedures in their new locales. Identification requirements have changed frequently and can be confusing, even to precinct workers. Some prospective voters are homeless, making address verification especially difficult.

Luckily for me, the precinct where I worked in this year’s election was relatively stable. Interest in the election was high, with contested races for town mayor and several town council seats. During the nearly thirteen hours from the time our doors opened for voting until the final voter revved his car into the parking lot and panted his way through the precinct entrance a minute before closing, we were rarely idle. Seven of us combined our efforts to perform needed precinct tasks: we verified names and addresses, authorized voting for those properly registered, handed out ballots, answered questions, redirected those who’d showed up at the wrong precinct, gently dissuaded those who’d showed up on the wrong date, provided advice and provisional ballots for those whose voting status was in question, thanked citizens for voting and gave them “I voted” stickers, checked and cross-checked voting tallies to make sure our manual and automated counts stayed reconciled.

A few days after the election came Veterans’ Day. Originally established as a holiday to commemorate the armistice that ended the “war to end all wars” on November 11, 1918 at 11 a.m. and later expanded to include all U.S. veterans, we’ve sometimes degraded the day’s significance. Rather than a reflection on the tragedies and sacrifices of war, we’ve sometimes substituted a jingoistic, commercial-laden extravaganza of pious political sloganeering and holiday sales. The original meaning of Veterans’ Day came home to me more clearly the following day, a Sunday, when our religious congregation honored the living veterans in our community of worshipers and seekers. Some in this varied lot of men and women, ranging from oldsters to those barely out of their teens, had endured hardships and dangers much more severe than the uncomfortable chairs and brief days’ spells of disrupted eating I’d experienced. Yet their sacrifices were partly in service to the work I’d recently participated in. The values we hold dear—fairness, humility, compassion, inclusion—have been fought for at the ballot box as courageously as on any battlefield.

One of our oldest and largest veterans’ rights organizations, Veterans of Foreign Wars, states its mission as honoring veterans’ service, plus making sure veterans get the full benefits they deserve. To ensure this, the group lobbies as an organization, but much of its strength comes from members’ capacity and willingness to vote.

Helping preserve our values and our democracy requires free and fair elections in which as many of us as possible participate. My election-assistance services are episodic and short-lived, but important nevertheless. I’m glad to be among the veterans of domestic elections.

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Putting the Puzzle Together

Putting the Puzzle Together    —by Jinny Batterson

This past weekend I traveled from my home in central North Carolina to Washington, D.C. with a bus full of college students and a couple of other “gray hairs” to participate in parts of a “Democracy Awakening” weekend. Early Sunday afternoon, we gathered on the National Mall for a voting rights demonstration co-sponsored by over 200 civic and religious groups.  People stood, sat, or sprawled under budding trees to listen as a series of speakers from a wide diversity of environmental, labor, human rights, and faith organizations described the need to restore voting rights and democracy to our increasingly dysfunctional political system. 

Once the speeches were over, we formed a loose phalanx to march around the U.S. Capitol. For a while, I walked near a guy on stilts who’d crafted an Uncle Sam parody costume, decorated front and back with corporate logos. While marching, we sang, chanted, and waved banners. Among my favorites were several protesting recent U.S. Supreme court decisions that give corporations and wealthy individuals unfettered funding access during political campaigns: “Money’s not speech, corporations aren’t people,” or “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one,” or, more generally, “The system isn’t broken—it’s fixed.”

My guess is that most members of Congress were not at the Capitol, which had scaffolding surrounding its dome due to a much-delayed infrastructure repair project. They may have been off fundraising somewhere.

On the bus rides back and forth, I eavesdropped a bit on the students’ conversations. I was impressed—they were more politically savvy and engaged than I had been at a similar age. They wanted to be sure they would have a chance to vote in this year’s upcoming elections, despite photo ID requirements that did not recognize North Carolina student IDs, and decreases in early voting times and places that make it less convenient for college students to vote. Several students had participated in more local protests at the North Carolina state capitol, where our most recent, highly gerrymandered legislature seems intent on bringing back the worst excesses of earlier eras. 

At the end of the bus ride, my husband picked me up and gave me and a neighbor a ride the rest of the way home. Our neighbor, a retired lawyer, commiserated that she’d thought the speeches varied too much in their focus.

“Why didn’t they just add arguments for political reform in a logical, cumulative way? Why talk about labor, environment, health, LGBT rights, immigration?” she wanted to know.  “Isn’t that too broad an agenda to make any headway?” 

It took a while for me to process what she’d said, which didn’t match my experience of the rally. Later we had another chance to talk.

“I’ve been pretty involved in voting rights work for a while now,” I told her. “I’ve internalized that many other issues—labor fairness, living wages, environmental stewardship, good health care, human rights for LGBTs,  immigrant rights, reducing and adapting to climate change—are all connected to a fair and free election process, something we’re losing and need to help restore. All of the speakers were promoting better election practices and voting rights as necessary means for achieving their other goals.” 

“Ah,” she said, “that makes sense. I guess I just wasn’t seeing the entire puzzle.”

My neighbor’s responses got me to thinking. Often, I do a poor job of articulating why I believe diminished voting rights and funds-distorted elections make progress on other issues so difficult. Full voting rights and broad funding sources are not guarantees of good government, but poor rights and highly concentrated campaign funding diminish us all. They:

1) Discourage those without deep pockets or powerful backers from running for office
2) Distort the focus of campaigns away from issues and toward fundraising
3) Thin the pipeline of candidates who move from local to state to national office, having picked up compromise and consensus-building skills along the way
4) Help create a “political class” with little experience or empathy for the problems of the disadvantaged
5) Promote single-issue lobby groups such as the NRA whose influence far
surpasses their membership
6) Reduce the time that elected officials spend on governing because of the
near-constant emphasis on fundraising for the next election cycle.
   

As I mulled through this list, I discovered a more basic puzzle piece for my own involvement. My most permanent takeaway from the rally is condensed in a small button I purchased just as the rally ended:

“Fear sells, until you stop buying it.” 

Perhaps the most basic problem with our dysfunctional funding and election system is how often it runs on fear—be it an incumbent’s fear of losing the next election to a well-funded candidate with even more extreme views, or minority voters’ fear of intimidation during voter registration or at the polls, or trumped up fears of Mexicans, Muslims, gender misfits, or even of “monolithic” corporations. Such fears blind us to the vibrant diversity that makes and keeps our democracy strong.

Voting with Our Feet (and other essential body parts)

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…