My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
September 21, 2004


The election is approaching, and pundits are telling you all the good reasons why you should vote -- civic duty, responsibility, yadda yadda.

I'm going to give you a bad reason to vote, and a very American one: sheer orneriness. Vote because you know for a fact that somebody really doesn't want you to. Whoever you are, whatever your politics, you can bet there's somebody who thinks you're too something to be trusted: too poor, too uneducated, too female, too redneck, too black, too gay, too Christian, too pro-union, too pro-life, too pro-gun, too whatever.

And that's how it has been from the moment the (sort of) United States came together as a nation. Back then, hardly any of us would have been permitted to vote. Only white men who owned property were trusted, and even they weren't trusted all that much. They couldn't choose their own senators by direct vote, for instance, until 1912. They weren't allowed to vote for their choice of president, either, but only for the electors who DO choose the president; today they still can't, and neither can the rest of us.

By 1847, most states allowed any white man, with or without property, to vote, but it took the Civil War and the 15th Amendment to the Constitution before black men could. The exact wording of that amendment, incidentally, was "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude," but I guess nobody believed that women were American citizens. Not until 1920, after a lot of campaigning and marching and hunger strikes, did the 19th amendment grant women the vote.

Of course, the right to vote doesn't matter if you can't pass a suspiciously difficult literacy test or afford to pay a poll tax. Not until the civil rights movement forced the passage of the Voting Rights Act did African-Americans' right to vote become more than a legal fiction.

But anyone under 21 was still left out. During VietNam, we changed the voting age to 18 so that young men who were old enough to be drafted would also be old enough to vote on the wars they were sent to fight.

Now that virtually any American citizen over 18 can vote, politicians have to work harder at keeping the "wrong people" from voting, but they're quite willing to make the effort. In a 2002 Maryland election, fliers that mysteriously appeared in black neighborhoods in Baltimore gave voters the wrong date for Election Day (one day late) and told them to be sure to pay all parking tickets, overdue rent and outstanding warrants before voting. This summer in South Dakota, some Native Americans were refused permission to vote in a special election because they lacked a photo-ID. In Florida, an investigation by the Civil Rights Commission found that black voters are 10 times as likely as whites to have their ballots rejected.

Democrats mostly do their tinkering not by repressing the vote but by extending it -- in some notorious cases, to voters who've arrived after the polls close, or to those who are technically dead. But in 1992, 2000 and 2004, Democrats have done their best to discourage third party voters by fighting to keep Ross Perot and Ralph Nader off the ballot.

If you don't like the idea of voting because it's the basic act of citizenship, think about the people who would like very much to prevent you from voting. Doesn't that get your back up? Doesn't that make you want to say, "And who the hell are YOU to stop me?" It's a funny thing about Americans: the more somebody tries to push us around, the more we fight back.

So, go out there and vote. Not only will you defend your rights, you'll annoy politicians. Isn't that an irresistible twofer?

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