The deadline for voter registration has come and gone in my state. But the memories linger on. Carrying a clipboard stocked with the 19th-century voter registration cards we use in Missouri, and fully equipped with the sense that registering to vote—whether Democrat or Republican—is a beneficial activity, I’ve been out there talking to people.
[Sidebar: A Republican acquaintance of mine, when told what I’d been up to, and knowing that I’m an Obama supporter, thought he was being clever when he winked and said, “I guess you’ve been doing that in East St. Louis, right?” Around here, that’s code for African-American neighborhoods, and I don’t find racist humor at all amusing.]
So, if I’m looking for lessons learned from my voter registration activities this year, that might be the first one: We most certainly do not live in a post-racist America.
Here are a few more. They’re less galling, more nitty-gritty, and, particularly in one instance, actually inspiring:
Despite Americas low voter turnout rate, being a registered voter still has cache. What makes me think that? Because I’ve observed that people do not want to admit that they are not registered, and that is why, when I walk around with a voter registration clipboard, I’ve learned not to ask, “Are you registered to vote?” Instead, I try to remember to ask them if their voter registration matches their current address, or if they’ve moved since the last time they voted. [I can usually get a laugh if I add to that list, “Or have you entered the witness protection program?”
Once you have moved, it can be hard to remember your previous address. Often, when a person is filling out a change of address for voter registration, he/she has to think hard about the old address. Lesson learned: We Americans don’t just move. We move on.
People who are ineligible to vote are very well informed about their status. Non-citizens. Too young (but often looking, to these aging eyes, much older). People with a felony conviction. In that instance, the legal system is, apparently doing an excellent job of informing people that they can’t vote .In my state, people with felonies can re-register when they are “off paper,” meaning when they have completed parole. On that point, they seem not as well informed. (Suggestion: On that auspicious day when you get off papers, parole officers—or somebody—should welcome people back into democracy, inform them of their restored civil rights, and perhaps even hand them a voter registration card.)
Too many people, even when offered the chance to register right then and there, decline, for reasons that work directly against their own self interest. I’ve heard a lot of these reasons, and i am certain that others manning the front lines of voter reg can cite many more:”My vote doesn’t count.” Right. Tell that to Missouri State Representative Stacey Newman, who won her primary election by precisely one vote.”The winner is destined to win, and nothing we do can change that.”And here’s my favorite from my most recent go-round: “I take my voting advice from Homer Simpson. Homer says, “I feel like a real American when i don’t vote.” (Homer has a point. A satirical point. Not a serious point, sir.)
And, if you think it is hard to persuade an undecided voter, try convincing an apathetic or uninformed eligible citizen simply to register. One young man told me that he doesn’t vote because it doesn’t matter. (I asked, by the way, and his non-voting was not based on religious beliefs.) Pressing him a bit I noted that he was just coming from a doctor’s appointment at a federally funded clinic, and I was wondering how that was working for him. “It’s good,” he said. “I really need my Medicaid.” “Hmm. maybe you should vote,” I replied. “If you want Medicaid, you need to vote for people who want to keep it and give it government money.” “Nah,” came the answer. “I just don’t vote.”
The best and most effective argument for registering to vote that I heard this year came from another volunteer. Trying to persuade a man who was very reluctant to register, she told him her story: “I grew up in South Carolina, where my parents couldn’t vote, had to sit in the back of the bus and drink from the ‘Coloreds Only’ fountain,” she said. “Then, in 1965, with the stroke of a pen, we got the Voting Rights Act, and everything changed. And I want you to realize that, with another stroke of another pen, that could all go away again. And that’s why you need to register and then vote.”The young man said he’d think about it, but he walked away. And then, one hour later, he came back and registered to vote for the first time in his life.
And that’s why I’m keeping my clipboard.
Gloria Shur Bilchik is a freelance writer and community volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the editor of Occasional Planet. She views the preservation of progressive values as vital to making the US a humane, livable place for her children and grandchildren.