It was July 4, 2007 in Waynesville, North Carolina. My wife and I, on vacation near Asheville, had volunteered to register voters after the town's Independence Day parade. Armed with pens, clipboards, and a simple form, we eagerly approached passersby: "Are you registered to vote?" we boldly asked. Nearly everyone exchanged pleasantries, a few signed up, and a select few drew back. "I can't vote," one fellow told me sheepishly. "I've been a felon." He said he had finished his probation and paid his fines.
Having been briefed on the laws then in place in North Carolina, I advised him to get documentation from his parole officer; he then could register and vote. He seemed truly grateful for that information and encouragement. I could feel his relief.
Registering folks on July 4th just plain felt good. Patriotic. But really, any day someone registers to vote is a good day. It has never been fully easy for American citizens to register and to vote. The Constitution originally provided that the States determined eligibility and they were quite restrictive. White male property owners had it good! But even after the various amendments from 1870 on that enfranchised Blacks, women, 18 year olds, and others, states have often worked doggedly and imaginatively to circumvent the inevitable national attempts for voting to be more inclusive.
At this time, under the guise of fictitious "rampant voter fraud," voting rights in America are under unrelenting assault. Groups like ALEC are unabashedly devising language for legislators to propose in their states that would make voting much more difficult. The attempt is to diminish certain kinds of people from voting: people of color, the elderly, the poor, young people, and naturalized immigrants.
Now the President has named a "voter fraud commission," headed by Kris Kobach, whose first act was to request sensitive voter information from each state including voter social security numbers, party affiliation, voting history, and more. To date, the Secretaries of State from 44 states have declined to provide this information, including New Mexico's own, Maggie Toulouse Oliver.
But all Americans have to remain vigilant and active in the fight against restrictions on registering or voting. After all, about 100,000,000 people chose not to vote in 2016. Our problem is not that a few isolated cases of double-voting might be uncovered or that voter rolls are inevitably error-prone. It's that so many Americans stay on the sidelines of our nation's most crucial decision-making.
One organization leading the fight is LetAmericaVote (.org), headed by Missouri's former Secretary of State Jason Kander. Its mission statement asserts that "politicians are trying to stop Americans from voting because of who they are likely to vote for in an election..." and adds "voter suppression laws disproportionately impact people based on their race or ethnicity, gender, age, or income."
LetAmericaVote is dedicated to fighting these kinds of laws where they pop up anywhere in the nation.
Kander ran for Senate in Missouri in 2016 and almost beat long-time incumbent Roy Blunt. His campaign garnered a great deal of national attention when his ad showing him assembling a rifle blindfolded went viral. In that ad Kander was supporting expanded background checks and highlighting his military service in Afghanistan.
Kander will be joining New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver for a panel discussion about "Voting Rights" followed by a Q & A on Saturday, (July 15), from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Taos Mesa Brewery in El Prado [20 ABC Mesa Road, off U.S. 64 west]. This event is free and open to all.
If you, too, believe that being engaged in this struggle is crucial to our democracy, please plan to attend.
And, if you need to register to vote, I'll be there to sign you up!
Brown is an El Prado resident.