By Elizabeth Burke
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report
As Nov. 2 draws closer, I feel the need to remind everyone that the right to vote is the most important one we have. It always seems presidential elections get all the attention and seem so much more exciting than their stepsister, the midterms.
Except, this year, a funny thing happened on the way to the midterms. Since so many moderate Democrats and Republicans stayed home during the primaries, the new kids on the block, the Tea Party, won a remarkable number of state and local races and shocked the GOP establishment right out of their Brooks Brothers suits. Historically, both major parties selected their standard bearers, put money and people behind their campaigns and then sat back and waited for the party faithful to go to the polls and vote a straight ticket.
But 2010 is the year that the little party that could, did! I may not agree with a single thing the Tea Partiers stand for (not that even have a cohesive or unifying platform), but I’m impressed with their hijacking of the GOP. Absolutely brilliant! It’s what American politics is all about: expressing your voice in a democratic, electoral way. If the existing political parties aren’t in line with your beliefs, create a new one, put up a candidate, get your friends to volunteer, get Karl Rove to create a nonprofit to secretly fund your group. And watch what happens!
The process wasn’t always so easy. The old white men who wrote “all men are created equal” had an unspoken caveat: “all men” meant land-owning white men. The African-American population couldn’t vote, according to the original version of the Constitution, as they were seen as 3/5 of a person. I’m not sure how our Founding Fathers came up with that percentage, but apparently Native Americans weren’t quite 100% human, as they couldn’t vote, either. Women were thought to be a possession of their husband or father, so who needs their voice, anyway? Shut up and have a few more babies, ladies!
After the Civil War ended in 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and the 14th Amendment providing full civil rights for all blacks, thus fulfilling the Declaration of Independence’s original “all men are equal” promise.
Democrats at the time, mostly from the South, hated the newly freed slaves (there goes all that free labor). They enacted enough laws at the state level that, unless you were a suicidal, newly free black man, voting was still a white, male-dominated sport. Suddenly, one had to read to vote; by 1925, more than 20 states (again, mostly Southern) had some law requiring voters to be able to read. Since most of the black population was illiterate, well, that’s the point.
It took a century after the Civil War — until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — to really enforce the 15th Amendment, which prohibits the denying of the right to vote on the basis race, color “or previous condition of servitude.” I’d like to say this was the end of it, but even in a country with the rights and freedoms we enjoy, there will always be racist animals who will create voter intimidation at the polls. African-Americans were the first targets of this and often still are; now, it’s also brown folks — anyone looking different from a white American. Ah, ignorance. Not so much bliss as bullshit.
By 1920, women finally gained the right to vote. It seems that a bunch of loud, educated women with time and money on their hands and a clear message of inequality was more than the men in power could take. State by state, women were clearly tired of having no control over their lives and tired of being told what to do by a bunch of condescending men. In 1915, Alice Duer Miller wrote a piece that Tina Fey would respect:
Why We Don’t Want Men to Vote
- Because man’s place is in the army.
- Because no really manly man wants to settle any question otherwise than by fighting about it.
- Because if men should adopt peaceable methods women will no longer look up to them.
- Because men will lose their charm if they step out of their natural sphere and interest themselves in other matters than feats of arms, uniforms, and drums.
- Because men are too emotional to vote. Their conduct at baseball games and political conventions shows this, while their innate tendency to appeal to force renders them unfit for government.
So, maybe you’re sitting at your desk, reading this post, thinking, It’s raining out, my single vote doesn’t matter, I don’t really feel like going outside, who cares? I say get off your couch/bed/ergonomic office chair and vote. You have no idea how important your vote can be. Al Franken won his Senate seat with 225 votes. In Colorado this year, the Senate race is so close it could be a handful of votes to determine who goes to D.C. in January. State Representative Mike Kelly, in Alaska in 2008, kept his seat by four votes.
In fact, it’s local elections that will have the most impact. In Buffalo, Assembly Member Sam Hoyt kept his seat, the same his father once held, by 213 votes. Don’t be lazy. Just vote.
And if you don’t, then zip it. No vote = no voice. If you do not vote, someone else will make decisions for you and you’ll have no voice against them. You’ll have lost your right to complain. You’ll have lost your credibility. You cannot make noise when your taxes are raised, when laws are enacted you don’t agree with. Too bad. You had a chance to be heard and you blew it.
Better yet, get involved.
This period we’re in right now is especially key. It’s called GOTV — Get Out the Vote. You can partake in a local campaign by working phone banks (you can even call for out of state candidates), go door to door canvassing the neighborhood to remind people to vote, and if you have computer or phone skills, help out in a campaign office. All these operations really ramp up the week before an election and most campaigns need a lot of help. On Election Day, you can also phone bank, canvass, offer your car to drive the elderly and infirm to the polls, or work as a poll watcher, observing any irregularities at voting locations and report them. Campaign offices specifically train people for this role. If you’re an attorney, volunteers are always needed to watch for voting irregularities.
Here are some links to help you find out who’s running, if you’re registered and where your polling site is. Go get educated and then vote on Nov. 2!
- The New York State Board of Elections Website.
- Your polling location.
- List of candidates for the five boroughs.
- What is a Poll Watcher?
- New York State Young Democrats.
- New York State Republican Party.
Elizabeth Burke, a New York-based actor, has been involved in politics since her first campaign at age 16. Burke’s Law does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.