The Middle East Spring (and Summer) has signaled a region coming of age, as revolutions spread and brutal regimes topple -- a people's revolution that continues to unfold before our eyes. Meanwhile, America remains bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to prop up weak and unpopular governments while defending them against seemingly endless insurgencies. If only the Iraqi and Afghan people could have been allowed to determine their own national destinies like their brothers and sisters in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Yemen and elsewhere. Both they and we would have been the better for it.
While the Middle East struggles to throw off the weight of tyranny, we in America watch as our own democracy crashes and burns. Our non-functioning government has arguably been overthrown by an extremist, nutsy, well-financed fringe group that has seized control of the agenda and debate in DC, holding our country hostage. If we have any chance at repairing our broken-down government, we must mobilize the 75 million Americans who, in 2008, wasted the most powerful right our nation's founders fought so hard to secure for them -- the right to vote.
Even if only a small percentage of that number were to wake up and smell the Tea Party, we could retake our country in a flash. Clearly the power would be in the numbers and would have a crushing effect on the special interests now clearly controlling Congress and our president. This would be a quiet revolution that wrests control of our government from "We the Corporations" and returns it to "We the People." But we must come up with a compelling narrative to answer the nagging question that seems to be at the heart of everything American these days: "What's in it for me?"
People don't vote for a variety of reasons: they claim to be too busy, not interested in politics, or feel that their government doesn't care about them, instead being owned by the rich and powerful. All of this, of course, is aided and abetted by a corporate media that keeps folks misinformed and ignorant with its avoidance of substance, outright lies and endless doses of trivia and escapist nonsense.
A few years ago we saw the Rock The Vote campaign bring out unprecedented numbers to vote, many first-timers and young people. Unfortunately, a large number of those same voters are now turned off, angry and bitter about an unresponsive government that doesn't connect with them or address their concerns. We recall the up-tick in voting for Obama in 2008, when he inspired large numbers of young people to vote for the first time. Yet only 63.6% of all eligible voters voted, while 89.6% of all registered voters did vote in the presidential election, an impressive turnout. Obama's victory was achieved despite irregularities and downright fraud at the polls in various states like Florida, Indiana and Ohio, with excessively long lines, broken machines or not enough machines, votes "mysteriously" flipped by machine "errors," ID fraud, robo-calls and purging of voters' names. Let us also not forget that ACORN was discredited and destroyed after doing great voter registration work in 2008 -- the enemies of democracy will stop at nothing to crush the opposition.
Of course, we still bitterly remember the boldest theft of an election in 2000, when the Presidency was stolen from Al Gore. We can expect a bigger bag of tricks and blatantly fraudulent behavior from the ethically-challenged right wing in 2012. The prime targets of all of this Jim Crow-ism are the uneducated, the poor and minorities, especially African-Americans. Even here in supposedly progressive New York, a despicable practice has been on the books for years in which inmates at upstate prisons are counted as members of those communities to inflate population numbers and ensure Republican representation in the Assembly, State Senate and Congress. Meanwhile, these "upstate residents" are removed from voting altogether in their own home districts.
In most states, convicts lose their right to vote even after serving their sentences or are let out on probation, with disenfranchisement among African-American ex-offenders running as high as 40% as they lose the right to vote permanently, which leaves 1.4 million men in the African American community disenfranchised. In 2009, New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws -- some of the harshest in the country and long considered inherently racist by opponents -- were finally repealed after 36 years of ferocious legal battles. A new day in jurisprudence was born for those especially young first-time offenders caught with small amounts of drugs, who are now sent to Drug Courts, which can refer them for treatment instead of prison.
5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of state laws that prohibit people with felony convictions from voting. In the past 15 years, almost half of all states have introduced some felony reform, and since then 800,000 have regained the right to vote. Much more needs to be done, and before leaving the Senate, Russ Feingold, along with Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced The Democracy Restoration Act, which would restore voting rights nationally to everyone released from prison. It should be noted that more than 60% of those in prison are racial and ethnic minorities, and 3/4 of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color. 1 in 8 African-American males are in prison due to the "war on drugs," leaving 13% of all African-American men unable to vote.
The Sentencing Project sent a letter on September 7th to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights requesting them to review felony disenfranchisement laws during a hearing to review recent voter suppression. The Sentencing Project, which has worked on these issues for 25 years, urged the Subcommittee to consider the impact of felony disenfranchisement and to support reform. Meanwhile, only Vermont and Maine allow prisoners to vote while in prison. What incentive is there for a released prisoner to become a part of society and their community again when they are punished twice, once for the crime and again by being removed from the electoral process that would benefit them and their family?
I'll never forget the summer of '04 when I worked for a Congressional campaign in my district in New York City. A couple approached us outside a supermarket and the man said, "My wife votes and I can't." I asked him why, and he answered that he was an ex-convict and couldn't vote and he wanted to vote. A deep sadness registered on his face. I tried to assure him that one day that would change and that a debate in Albany was currently going on about overturning the Rockefeller Drug Laws. He mentioned his was a drug offense. Voter education should be a part of the rehabilitation programs in prisons, aiding the incarcerated in re-assimilating to society as one who has a stake in the affairs of their community and government.
How else can we bring in more eligible voters to register and vote? Right now, only 12 states have automatic registering to vote attached to applications at the Motor Vehicle Bureau. Obviously, Motor Vehicle departments in every state should do this. Hey, we can donate organs in this way, so why not register voters, too? In some European countries, people are fined for not voting -- now there's a win-win for our democracy and budget woes! Town Hall gatherings with members of Congress educating their constituents on what it means to vote should be a part of every Congressmember's job description, not just to enroll new voters in their communities but also to demonstrate firsthand the value of the democratic process. Their staffs and volunteers should go to farmers markets, malls, county fairs and anywhere large crowds gather to hand out registration cards. Voter seminars on America's voting history and why the vote is so important could also be conducted at libraries, YMCA's, houses of worship and community centers. The possibilities are endless.
Voter registration forms can currently be found in libraries, Congressional district offices and other government agency offices, as well as at the post office. The DNC could certainly help as well: advertise, educate, and promote voter sign-ups all year long, in conjunction with the state Democratic parties. Galvanize an army of volunteers from progressive advocacy organizations to work crowded venues and sign folks up. They would jump at the prospects of joining a revolution of people power to take our government back. We should also implement early voting and mail ballots nationally, which could help bail out a post office system currently going into insolvency.
As the 2012 Presidential campaign heads into high gear, we must engage these eligible non-voters who are young, uneducated and economically deprived. Of course, the GOP wants to continue to exclude this very segment of the population, for they would embrace a government that provides them with a hand up to improve their lives. So, DNC, here is your golden opportunity to make your case to enroll new members into the party.
We must be vigilant and act to protect the voting process as we would protect against any terrorist attack, and to assure that all Americans have the right to vote -- our most basic and most important responsibility as citizens.
With Jonathan Stone