Friday, January 21, 2005

Everyone's Vote Must Count (Even Hyman's)

On a hot summer night in 1964 outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, three young men died defending Americans’ right to vote. They weren’t soldiers. They were three civil rights workers, two white and one black, who were helping register African Americans to vote. They were brutally gunned down by members of the KKK.

his latest commentary, Mark Hyman discusses voter disenfranchisement. Choosing to focus solely on the disenfranchisement of overseas members of the military, he claims cryptically that many charges of voter disenfranchisement in recent elections are “urban legends.” (Has anyone suggested alligators living in city sewers are chomping up butterfly ballots?)

Hyman is right on two important counts: yes, there have been problems with absentee ballots from service members overseas being counted in time, and yes, there needs to be something done about it (although electronic balloting, Hyman’s suggested solution, without a paper trail is a recipe for disaster).

But Hyman leaves out a few important facts. For one, government studies have shown that the problems in collecting military ballots come largely from one source: the Pentagon itself, which has been lax in instituting changes in mail delivery that would help solve the problem. Because Hyman doesn’t want to blame the military brass for problems of enlistee disenfranchisement, he doesn’t mention this.

Furthermore, as shameful as it is that not all members of the military have had their votes counted, it’s not the sole or even primary problem when taking on the issue of voter disenfranchisement. Despite his assertion that other charges of disenfranchisement are urban legends (we’re guessing he’s referring to claims of the disenfranchisement of African Americans—call it a hunch), there’s evidence aplenty that voter disenfranchisement is widespread in the civilian world as well.

And one doesn’t need to take the word of politically motivated pundits or interest groups. The government itself has conducted studies on disenfranchisement in the 2000 election, and found unequivocal evidence that it happened, and that it happened primarily to the working poor and minorities. A
congressional investigation found that across the nation, districts with lower household incomes and/or high minority populations had disproportionately high numbers of uncounted ballots compared to wealthier, whiter districts. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that in Florida, a wildly disproportionate number of discounted ballots were cast by African Americans. Moreover, there was substantial evidence that the Florida state government illegally struck the names of thousands of black voters from the rolls. This is particularly chilling; military disenfranchisement seems to be the product of simple mismanagement of the Pentagon itself, while the events in Florida (given that the governor and secretary of state in Florida had, to say the very least, a vested interest in the outcome of the vote) suggest the possibility of purposeful voter suppression.

For democracy to work, we need to know free and open elections, the lynchpin of that democracy, are carried out properly. Every vote needs to count, from the National Guard member serving in Iraq to the retired nurse living in Broward County, Florida. There’s no room in a democracy for claims that it’s more important to count some people’s votes than it is to count those of others.

This is a particularly important value to reassert now. Only last week,
a former KKK member was charged with murdering of those three young civil rights workers on that dark Mississippi road more than 40 years ago. As surely as the soldiers who hit Omaha Beach fought and died to protect democratic freedoms, so did Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. We owe it to everyone who has given their lives to protect our freedoms to make sure everyone’s vote is counted.

And that’s The Counterpoint.


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