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Reverend Charles E. Williams II Headshot

A Democracy Deferred

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In the year 2000 I was a college student at Eastern Michigan University where I developed and had my first taste of engaging in electoral politics. Strange as it seems I wasn't a part of a GOTV machine, nobody was paying me to campaign, but I had a decent understanding of why I thought Al Gore was a better choice than George W. Bush. So I figured that I would take some initiative on Election Day of November of 2000. Playing a role in the democratic process, I drove around campus asking students if they voted. Every time someone told me no, I told them to hop in my car and I gave them a ride to the poll. To my surprise I was running a one-man flushing operation on campus, and didn't even know it. Later on that evening, I joined my political science schoolmates at a pizza joint next to campus to watch the results. This was probably the first time I had ever paid any real substantial attention to presidential election results, but it seemed to go pretty fast, and I was happy because projections showed Al Gore had all the electoral college votes he needed, including Florida.

Then something happened. The news correspondent with a distraught look on his face apologized and said apparently, "Florida is too close to call." It was a phrase I never heard before but one that I will never forget. As everybody knows the too-close-to-call phrase was utilized until the last precinct had been counted and counted again and counted again. All of a sudden I was back in my dorm room watching results debated, listening and watching legal analysts talk about chads, and hanging chads. In that same night, without sleeping, I watched the newscast go back and forth. I saw activists like the national president of the National Action Network, Reverand Al Sharpton, demonstrating in the face of some real opposition up until December 18th, when finally the Judicial Branch of government gaveled the election. The electoral votes were counted and there was nothing to be left of political conversation but the planning of the Bush inauguration.

What a nightmare. At the age of 18, I was stricken with a brief bout of election depression. I recovered, however, and become 10 times more engaged in 2004. In 2001 I started to get engaged with the save affirmative action demonstrations, organizing people and buses to federal courtrooms and town halls to discuss the importance of its existence. I was trying to recruit more clergy and I ran into a tall, stately fellow who has a powerhouse of a persona: Reverend Horace L. Sheffield III. At the time, he had long organized the first chapter of the National Action Network in Detroit. Right away he was helpful. In fact, he instantly recruited me to assist him in pastoral ministry and knighted me the youth and college director of National Action Network for the Midwest Region. This was exciting, as I was not only engaged, but was also now connected to an organization that was on the cusp of being a nationally recognizable civil rights organization.

As time passed I started to earn my civil rights soldier stripes, and decided to be the state director for Reverend Sharpton's presidential campaign in Michigan. I must have been all of 21, but I saw a challenge and I took it on. Like most that joined the Al Sharpton for president campaign, I organized for more inclusion and to mobilize the base further for 2004 voter turnout. As a young man who successfully and proudly mobilized nine delegates and negotiated some committee seats to the Democratic National Convention 2004, I was sought out by a young lady named Sharon Lettman, who at the time was with an organization called People for The American Way. Sharon and William Bill Lucy -- the former Secretary-Treasurer of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and President of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionist -- chose me to coordinate the labor and community non- partisan special operation, called Election Protection. For obvious reasons, this campaign happened to be near and dear to my heart.

It was a large task that year: State Senator John Pappageorge of Michigan had allegedly already declared that the only way Michigan was going to swing republicans was by suppressing the black vote. There it was: the re-emerging evil head of voter suppression. Something that I would never dream in my life to have to fight against was rearing out of the shadows of Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Voting Rights Act. So here I was unconsciously flushing voters to the polls as a college student to consciously trying to protect voters from suppressive tactics like: keeping police cars away from polls and sending lawyers to have voter obstructionists removed from polling locations. I guess we did a good job in Michigan, but it didn't seem as if Ohio had that same experience. In fact, there were many improprieties that were caught in Ohio, mostly all caused by republican clerks and election officials. These tactics are now written in the playbook for those who seek to distort an election today.

Hence we have Voter I.D laws, otherwise known as Voter integrity laws, funded by the American legislative Exchange Council. They have already begun to cause havoc and disenfranchise voters. In the last election, a 91-year-old lady from Tennessee was denied the right to vote. These laws advocate if you don't have a state issued I.D, you can't vote, and in some cases, you can't even register to vote. However, some state election officials who seek to suppress the vote, like in Michigan, say that you can vote and you can register, but your vote will be considered a challenged ballot.

Here's where I can see the 2000 election written all over the election in 2012. If your vote is challenged, then that gives groups like Citizens for Voter Integrity, or Citizens for Clean Elections (made up names) reason to file lawsuits the next day after the election, asking judges to decide elections and begging for clarity on whether ballots should or shouldn't be counted. In this scenario, we could go to sleep with an election called for one candidate, and wake up with a Supreme Court judge gaveling-in another candidate. These laws are suppressive, and we cannot afford to adapt to them, nor can we allow them on legislative rosters without a fight. There is so much to lose in this election. There are political policies that concern me, like healthcare and a presidency that was responsible for the auto industry turnaround, but there are also American values that I am concerned about, like the usurpation and manipulation of democracy. These voter suppression laws laugh in the face of those that we remembered on Memorial Day, from 1776 until the present. This country is supposed to have the market share, the magic touch and the boiler plate example of what democracy looks like for the world. Isn't that what Iraq and Afghanistan was all about: spreading democracy? If these laws are adopted judges will become king makers and corporations will become oligarchs. Beware of Voter I.D laws coming to a blue state near you.