Your vote DOES matter; start exercising it

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During election season, some people watch the debates, attend forums, track endorsements and follow the polls. Others show little to no interest in the races. If you fall in the latter category and think your vote doesn’t matter, then I would like to put

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During election season, some people watch the debates, attend forums, track endorsements and follow the polls. Others show little to no interest in the races. If you fall in the latter category and think your vote doesn’t matter, then I would like to put something on your mind.

Monday, January 23 marked 48 years since the 24th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified to abolish the poll tax, a fee charged to vote in a national election. But the poll tax was just one of many tactics used to create barriers to voting in the Jim Crow South. Literacy tests, intimidation, even violence, were used to keep Blacks from voting. My grandfather, in fact, was denied the right to vote in Mississippi because he could not recite the Bill of Rights from memory.

What’s more, this was still happening nearly a century after the 15th Amendment had been ratified in 1870 to prevent any state from denying a man the right to vote because of his race. Still, law-makers in states such as Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana, where Blacks were the clear majority at the time, found ways around the law.

Today, voting rights are under fresh new attacks. More than a dozen states have passed laws or issued executive orders to limit the types of identification accepted at the polls; to cut short the early voting period; to make it harder for ex-offenders to regain their voting rights, or to require proof of citizenship. Proposals are being considered in several other states that would require a photo ID.

Marian Wright Edelman, a lifelong advocate for the disenfranchised and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, described these new laws as the largest legislative effort to scale back voting rights in a century.

My question, therefore, to cynical voters is this: If your vote doesn’t matter, then why are some states trying to make it harder for people to exercise that right? These modern-day tactics may not rise to the level of Jim Crow, but they still raise serious questions.

Changes to accepted forms of ID, for instance, could negatively impact voter turnout, particularly for college students and nursing home residents. Interestingly enough, seniors and students were a huge voting bloc for President Obama in 2008. One has to question this growing trend to alter ID rules in states such as Texas, South Carolina and Florida that have a history of throwing up barriers to voting. Upon closer examination and informed by history, we should challenge laws that restrict our right to vote rather than enhance, encourage and create opportunities for citizens to exercise that right.

Thankfully, such blatant tactics have not been attempted in Illinois. But this growing national trend to make changes should underscore to all eligible voters the critical importance of protecting and exercising the right to vote, perhaps the most fundamental right to American citizenship behind the pursuit of happiness. Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement. We must not let it fall by the wayside.

If you are already a registered voter who participates in both the primary and general elections, then I’m preaching to the choir. So this message is for the congregants: If you are not registered to vote in the state of Illinois, there is still ample time to do so.

February 20 is the last day to register for the primary election on March 20. Registration for the general election on November 6 will take place between March 21 and October 6.

If you or someone you know is not registered to vote, I invite you to come to the Chicago Urban League to register. We have staff and volunteers available to register voters every weekday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

My grandfather, a proud citizen of the United States, was denied his constitutional right to vote solely because of the color of his skin. Do not waste the privilege you have been given. Let nothing or no one stand in your way. Register to vote. Be at the polls on March 20 and November 6.

Andrea L. Zopp is President and CEO of The Chicago Urban League.

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