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Nicholas Brown Headshot

Fighting Back Against Voter Suppression

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Imagine this: a nervous high-school kid walks into a convenience store. He retreats to the pharmacy section and then shuffles up to the cashier and throws a pack of Trojans on the counter.

"How much are these?" he asks, blushing furiously.

"Two dollars," the middle-aged cashier tells him. She looks uncomfortably like his mother.

The teen reaches into his jeans and puts two crumpled bills on the counter next to the condoms.

"I'm sorry," says the cashier, "but it's actually $2.09."

The kid looks like a startled animal. He just wants to be out of the store and done with this humiliation. "Why?" he asks.

"Well," says the woman, "that's two dollars plus tax."

The kid's face turns from red to white.

"Tacks?!" he asks, "I thought you just rolled them on."

It's pun-based humor, but with a point: we youth don't always quite get the logistics of the day to day. When I was straight out of college, I forgot to transfer the electricity bill into my name and the lights in my apartment eventually went out. I wouldn't dream of trying to do my taxes without an accountant and -- if I didn't have some very firm opinions about politics -- registering might have been another of those things I never quite got to.

All of which is why a screw up from the local election board out in Blacksburg, Virginia -- out by Virginia Tech -- this August was so pernicious. The Montgomery county election board warned students that by voting locally they could forfeit their scholarships, lose their health insurance, bump up their parents' taxes and generally make life for themselves and their families really unpleasant.

This entire warning, of course, was wrong. The county retracted its statement two days later. But if you tell a an eighteen-year-old kid that not only will he have to chase down the forms and information for voter registration, but it could also ruin his life... well, that speaks a lot louder than two sentence retraction.

I don't want to suggest for a moment here that all eighteen-to-twenty-year-olds are morons or ignoramuses. Maybe some of them will track down that retraction and have no trouble with or worries about voting. I just mean to suggest that I would never have noticed it. If I were worried about a scholarship coming through or my health insurance, I might well have just said 'screw it' and waited for the next election cycle. As it was, I voted for Nader with essentially the same result.

When it comes to vote suppression, neither party is completely to blame. We Democrats like to think our party keeps its nose clean, but I have worked on a campaign that actively sought to challenge the absentee ballots of senior citizens who were in New Hampshire on election day. And I know Democratic operatives who have intimidated volunteers for a Republican candidate in an attempt to stifle his get out the vote operation.

Be that as it may, voter suppression is a tactic disproportionately used by Republicans. Every two years there is some new scandal involving large numbers of robotic calls. I worked in Wyoming in 2006 when angry supporters called our office just before the election complaining that we woke them in the middle of the night and they had a good mind not to vote at all if we were going to keep it up. Obviously, we didn't make these calls. Robotic calls also famously jammed Democratic get-out-the-vote phone lines in New Hampshire in 2002; harassed voters with multiple calls in Illinois' sixth district; and gave false polling places to voters in heavily democratic counties in Michigan and Minnesota in 2004. Apart from these, there are flyers telling immigrants they may lose their citizenship if they vote; flyers informing potential voters of the wrong election day; and Florida's famous purge of hundreds of legitimate voters from its voting rolls because they had the same or similar names as felons.

Of course, when it comes to electoral process, most people don't care all that much. Unless you live in Iowa or New Hampshire, chances are that you don't spend more than a few days every couple of years thinking about your local and federal elections. Moreover, anyone dealing with healthcare, tight wages, drafted sons and daughters, or a menagerie of other more-pressing issues is likely to ignore problems in the election process itself.

At some point though, the lights will go out. If we continue to ignore basic indecency, biased bureaucracy, and politically motivated disenfranchisement, then voter suppression will continue to become a more and more dominant campaign tactic. If we can buy a book with 1-click, then we ought to be able to vote the same way. Or -- at the very least -- instances of targeted vote suppression ought to be routinely punished with massive civil penalties.

Being a youth, I will be taking the next two months to register young voters while riding along with the Rock The Vote bus tour and blogging and photographing daily. It ought to be a joy, so I can hardly claim that duty compels me.

Nonetheless, if you happen to be reading this and are offended by the notion only 53% eligible voters in the first great modern democracy voted in 2004, then I encourage you to do something about it. Find two unregistered friends and help them with their paperwork; drive somebody to the polls on November 4th; or just make a ruckus in your district if you find out nasty tactics are being employed.

We have moved beyond Jim Crow laws and their heavy-handed ways of disenfranchising voters and it's time we all voiced our objections to voter suppression tactics that essentially amount to a modern day poll tacks... er, tax.

You get the idea.