by Elise Watson ‘17
As the President of Gordon’s Political Discourse Club, I recently applied for a budget extension from GCSA to partner with an organization that made it easier for students to register to vote. I was subsequently met with opposition from the representatives of student government. I didn’t have a problem with objections about spending that much money on an external service, or questions about the mission and validity of the company we wanted to work with. Those kinds of questions were understandable and beneficial to the conversation. The problem I discovered was the general assumption that all people at Gordon (and, presumably, beyond) had equal access to a computer, postage stamps, the requisite forms, and the knowledge to find individual state laws and regulations. The unspoken accusation was that to spend money on an external program to coordinate these things was simply lazy; I (and they) should be able to do it for free.
In “The Great Conversation” course, which I am a Peer Mentor for, we read a speech by civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, in which she details all roadblocks she encountered when attempting to register to vote in the early 1960s. She discusses how she was shamed and embarrassed by an excessively detailed literacy test, which involved interpreting the Mississippi Constitution, being fined for travelling in a bus that was “too yellow”, and losing her job as a result of her registration. She also talks about how she was affected by gerrymandering, as the people in power shifted the boundaries of the Congressional District to exclude black voters.
Voter repression is not just a thing of our Jim Crow past. The US Supreme Court affirmed the decision to strike down a Republican-championed law in North Carolina at the end of last month that required voter ID but denied the use of government-issued public assistance cards (used disproportionately by minorities) in the election booth. Gerrymandering, the intentional manipulation of the boundaries of an electoral constituency to favor one group, is an ongoing problem that is visible simply by way of examining a map of congressional districts in the United States.
Even more simply, voter repression is evidenced by the fact that Election Day is not a national holiday and that individuals living under the poverty line working double overtime to try and feed their families have to take time off of work in order to fulfill their civic duty. This substantiates an electoral preference for the wealthier populace who can find the time to drive to the polls themselves. Voter registration is not as easy as looking up laws and processes online, and it never has been.
At a privileged place like Gordon, we need to take a more holistic view of what it means to be a registered voter and civic participant in American society. We tend to look at democracy solely through our position as encouraged participants. Repression of voters is a tactic that has been used for two and a half centuries by those in power in the United States and is still widely used today. We must address these concerns by explicitly acknowledging a long history of voter repression and an unequal access to the opportunity to vote that affects many people in this country, even if it does not affect our white, suburban, middle-class constituency. This requires both an awareness of our own responsibility to vote, and a commitment to increasing the accessibility of democracy.
“You don’t want to hear the truth,” said Fannie Lou Hamer in her 1968 speech, “What Have We to Hail?”.
She continued, “I know you’re upset, but we just going to upset you more. I love you, the reason I’m upsetting you. And we going to have to face the problem that we have in America today…and if we’re going to make democracy a reality, we better start working now.” As a college community, let us commit to start working now to solve these problems, whether that means working in your own community, helping people to the polls, or registering to vote yourself.