Patricia A. O'Malley
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Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

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Voting in America:  Myths and Facts
September 22 is National Voter Registration Day
September 22, 2015





 


The movie Selma tells the story of the 1965 fight for the Voting Rights Act.  Voting is ingrained in Americans.  Children vote on what games to play.  Teenagers vote for prom royalty and class clowns.  Adults vote on which movies, restaurants, and entertainment events to attend with their friends.  Voting is rooted in the American soul.  But far too few Americans bother to vote on Election Day.

In the 1960s, tens of thousands of Americans, of all races, worked hard to convince Congress to pass the VRA, which protects black Americans’ voting rights.  Activists swarmed throughout the southern states to register black voters, butting heads with state and local authorities in the process.  Many of those courageous people were beaten and jailed for their efforts; some of them were murdered, because they believed in America's most fundamental principle.  

Voting is not a privilege.  It is a right.

Republicans Don't Want You to Vote.
Today, the Republican National Committee is conspiring to deprive you of your right to vote through Voter ID and other punitive laws.  So, what's the big deal?  Doesn't everyone have an ID?  Actually, they don't, and it's a very big deal for many people.  Republicans purposely design the voter ID laws to make it extremely difficult, and hopefully impossible, for poor, young, minority, and elderly citizens, and college students, to have or obtain “acceptable” forms of ID.  In every case, these laws obstruct voting rights for those groups.  And all of those groups tend to vote Democratic.

Republicans say they’re adopting these rules to “protect our elections” from some kind of imaginary fraud.  That’s a lie.  Election fraud in the United States is rarer than unicorns.  The United States does not have a problem with ineligible people voting too many times.  There are not busloads of illegal immigrants running around voting.  We have enough trouble getting people to vote at all.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University has produced a report on voter fraud.
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law carefully examines allegations of fraud to get at the truth behind the claims.  The Brennan Center has analyzed purported fraud cited by state and federal courts; multipartisan and bipartisan federal commissions; political party entities; state and local election officials; and authors, journalists, and bloggers.  Usually, only a tiny portion of the claimed illegality is substantiated — and most of the remainder is either nothing more than speculation or has been conclusively debunked.
Gee, who would benefit from removing poor, minority, and uneducated people from the voting rolls?

Our Constitution Protects Voting Rights
The original version of the Constitution doesn’t mention voting rights or qualifications at all.  The founders left that to the states.  But gradually, Congress learned that the states were permitting only rich, white men to vote.  So countless disenfranchised Americans did some serious community organizing and lobbying, over the course of 103 years, and won five constitutional amendments to protect voting rights.  That’s called LOBBYING, folks.

  • The 15th Amendment (1870) prohibits racial discrimination against voters.
  • The 19th Amendment (1920) extends voting rights to women.
  • The 23rd Amendment (1961) permits District of Columbia residents to vote in presidential elections.
  • The 24th Amendment (1964) abolishes poll taxes.
  • The 26th Amendment (1971) lowers the voting age to eighteen.


Who Can Vote
U.S. citizens, age 18 or older, can vote in federal elections.  Those are for president, U.S. Senate, and U.S. House of Representatives.  State residency requirements for voting vary.  Some states permit convicted felons to vote and others don’t.  The U.S. Election Assistance Commission site links to each state’s voting website.  Check your state’s voting website for details.

How to Register
USA.Gov’s Voting page has all of the information you need to know about voting.
Each state handles registration for its voters.  You can get paper forms from many state and local government offices and from many community organizations.  The U.S. Election Assistance Commission offers a nationwide paper voter registration form on its website.  State-specific instructions are included.  Make sure you see the voter registration deadline for your state, so that you don’t miss the election.

To date, 23 states have implemented online voter registration and plans are in progress in five others.
Go to the National Conference of State Legislatures Online Voter Registration Page for details.

The League of Women Voters and many other community organizations hold voter registration drives. 
The forms ask for your name, address, birth date, and other identifying information, along with your signature.  Some ask for your Social Security number, but you do NOT have to provide it.

The forms ask whether you want to register for a particular political party.  If you do, list that party in the appropriate space.  No state requires you to register for any party.  If you don’t list a party, the state will classify you as an independent voter.  State rules on independents’ eligibility to vote in primary elections vary.  Check your state website.

Many people refuse to register because they think that it will put them on a list to be called for jury duty. It doesn't work that way. Federal courts ruled in 1966 that voter lists can not be the only source for jury pools. Congress followed that with legislation saying the same thing. So, if you have a driver's or other state-issued license, own a motor vehicle or real estate, pay utilities at your home, or are listed in the phone book, you can be called for jury duty. So, since voter registration doesn't affect the jury list, then you might as well register so that you can vote.

Why You Should Vote
Elections are important because government officials – the ones we elect and those they hire – decide how much taxes you pay and how those taxes are spent.  They determine whether we go to war, whether to build or repair our roads and bridges, what our schools teach, and what social services to provide, and to whom.

Government decisions favor the rich instead of the poor because rich people vote more than poor people do.  People least likely to vote are new voters, people with lower incomes, with disabilities, with criminal records, African-Americans, youth, and women.  

Throughout the US, the government social safety net has seriously diminished during the past twenty years.  Congress has transferred more and more of the human service responsibilities to the states, without the money to pay for them.  Family income has decreased; millions of jobs have been lost.  Nearly 7,000 Americans, and hundreds of thousands of civilians, have died in our two wars, which only benefited rich, old, white men.

So, if you don't like these conditions, vote for new candidates with new policies.  You can’t lose your job, or your benefits, or be evicted for voting.  In some states, if you have a felony conviction, you can vote once you are no longer incarcerated.  Homeless people who are registered can vote.  People with disabilities can get help from the person of their choice in the voting booth.

For Whom Should You Vote?
You know what's important to you.  You can visit the candidates' and political parties’ websites for information on their positions.  Watch televised debates and attend local speeches, rallies, and candidate forums.  You can get impartial information from www.ontheissues.org or www.votesmart.org.  Your state’s Department of State website has a list of all candidates for all offices.  Many advocacy organizations produce very good voting guides.

Voting Mechanics
General elections are on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  Primary voting dates vary by state.  Your state’s website lists the voting dates and hours.  Local voting authorities, usually county government agencies, can tell you the address of your polling place, whether it’s handicapped-accessible, how to get an absentee ballot, and other information.

If you've never voted before, don't worry.  There is a large sample of your ballot hanging on the wall of the room.  You can look at it all you want and chat about it with anybody working the polls (inside or outside) or other voters who might be there.  Take your time.  Don't worry about using the new voting machines.  If you can use an automatic banking machine or a cell phone, you can operate a voting machine.  The poll workers will help you if you ask.

There is a Judge of Election at each polling place to help you if there is a problem with your registration.  You can call the Election Protection Hotline, staffed by the independent Project Vote at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683).  If poll workers prevent you from voting, demand a provisional ballot.  

Take your children, so they can learn about voting.
People fought and died to protect your right to vote.
So vote.  Believe me, you'll feel great afterward.

For more information:
USA.gov: Voting and Registering to Vote
United States Election Assistance Commission
National Conference of State Legislatures Online Voter Registration
State Voting Websites
Brennan Center for Justice:  The Truth About Voter Fraud
On The Issues
VoteSmart
League of Women Voters
Project Vote
An Overview of American Political Parties


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