Exorcising Your Right to Vote

I once cheerfully disenfranchised my whole family. We were taking a vote on something trivial: what movie to watch—Mulan vs. Aladdin. My husband and kids voted for one movie. I voted for another. Gleefully, the kids crowed about winning. I doubled down.

“Put your hands down!” I ordered. I pointed to the twins. “You two aren’t old enough to vote.” Then I pointed to my husband. “And you can’t vote in this country because you’re English. Since I’m the only one in this family both old enough to vote and a citizen of the United States, I win!”

See how easy it is to make it hard to vote? There are all sorts of ways that people can try to take away your vote. Gerrymandering is a fun one. We once lived in Pennsylvania. After we left, the district we were in became one of the most gerrymandered in the United States. The press called it “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”

Goofy Kicks

Donald looks more like Stitch to me, but regardless, the Republicans in Pennsylvania cheerfully created this district to give themselves more seats in the legislature by grouping together as many Republican votes as possible. Here’s how District 7 looked prior to this 2003 gerrymandering.

PA 7

And when we lived there, the district had even more regular boundaries than that! But lest you think this is only a nefarious plan on the part of Republicans, the Democrats are guilty too. Here’s Maryland’s District 3, which a local politician once said looked like “blood spatter from a crime scene.”

MD 3

Of course, gerrymandering is not a recent phenomenon; in fact, it takes its name from a former governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry. Gerry was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and James Madison’s vice president, but he’s most remembered as the governor whose administration enacted an 1812 law that created more senatorial districts in Massachusetts, thus giving his party more votes. Since one of the newly created Boston-area districts was said to resemble a salamander, the press dubbed it a “Gerry-mander.”

Gerry-mander

Elkanah Tisdale political cartoon of the “Gerry-Mander”

But gerrymandering is only one way to favor a particular outcome in an election. If you can’t redraw the map to make it harder for your opponents’ votes to count in the newly rigged district, you could try implementing a voter ID law. Twelve states, all Republican held, now have strict voter ID laws where voters have to show an approved ID to vote. Eight other states (six Republican, a swing state, and a Democratic state) require the ID, but they will allow voters to cast a provisional ballot without it. The problem here is that voters have to return with a valid ID within a certain time frame (usually a few days) for the provisional ballot to be counted. Which ID is valid varies by state. In Texas, for example, you can show your gun permit, but your university ID doesn’t count.

Opponents liken this mandatory voter ID system to a poll tax because the voter usually has to pay for the ID, and it is often inconvenient for voters to get because they have to go to a centralized location. Poll taxes (essentially a fee for voting) began in the late 1800s in the South as a way to keep African Americans and poor whites from voting, although the latter might be “grandfathered in” if they had a relative who voted before the Civil War. The legality of the direct fee-to-vote system was struck down by the 24th Amendment in 1964. So of course, proponents of strict voter ID laws argue that these laws are not a poll tax at all; after all valid government ID is useful in other situations besides voting. But an analysis of the effect of voter ID laws show that, like the poll tax, they disproportionately prohibit minorities, students, and the poor—the very people who struggle most to find transportation to a state-approved ID facility and the money to pay for the ID—from voting.

Poll Tax

While you might think these voter ID laws are a legacy from years ago, they are actually a relatively new voter suppression tactic. Indiana was the first state to pass a strict voter ID law in 2005. The Supreme Court upheld the law in 2008, and additional states have piled on since. Proponents argue these ID laws are important for preventing voter fraud at the polls, but study after study has found there are actually very few instances of impersonation voter fraud—the type that a voter ID would prevent. According to Justin Levitt, a professor with Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, that number is 31 attempts in more than a billion ballots cast since 2000. That result doesn’t even round to a hundredth of a percent; it is basically zero.

If you’re not a fan of looking at terrible voter ID pictures, you might choose to make it physically harder to vote. You can do that by closing polling places or shortening the hours of voting (both in the period leading up to the election when absentee ballots are cast and on the actual day of the election). This tends to create long lines, causes confusion on where to vote, and often forces the voter to have to travel farther to get to the polls. Again studies show this tactic disproportionately affects minorities and the poor. In the South alone, after part of the Voting Rights Act was struck down in 2013, almost 900 polling places were closed in areas that served these populations in the period leading up to the 2016 election.

And if you find it too much trouble to close down the polling places, you can always just drop people from the voting rolls (sometimes without telling them), prevent released convicts who have served their sentences from ever voting again, change the rules about how the voter has to go about registering, or any number of other methods politicians use to keep people from voting—usually in the fear that the masses won’t vote for their candidates and thus the only way to win is to game the system.

vote here

Sure, it feels great for a minute or two to win that election because you suppressed the vote (after all, I still feel sure my favorite Disney movie, Mulan, is superior to Aladdin,* one of  the kids’ favorites [Mulan is literally a kick-ass female lead; what’s not to love?]), but if we disenfranchise other voters, a tenet of our democracy is lost in the process. If the politician (or parent) has to rig the system to win, they aren’t really representing the will of the people. In the years since the movie incident, I’m pleased to report that my husband became an American citizen and the kids are now duly registered voters. Their votes each count equally to mine, and that’s how it should be.

On Tuesday, November 6, voters will once again head to the polls to vote in the midterm elections. As we’ve seen, plenty of people want to suppress your vote. Don’t let them. Please check your local requirements and take the time to let your voice be heard. It belongs to you alone, and it matters.

Text © Rebecca Bigelow
Photos from Wiki Commons

Additional Reading

 

*Hey, Aladdin fans, I like your movie pick. I just like mine more! YMMV.

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Advice to Charlottesville Marchers

Extinguish your Tiki torches.
They may light the night,
But never your soul or mind.

Take off your hood.
It may offer you anonymity,
But it can’t hide who you are.

Stop worshipping monuments
To treasonous generals
On the wrong side of history.

Put down your vile flags.
They celebrate empty promises
Of a false superiority.

Don’t allow yourself to be frightened.
Different threads woven together
Make the fabric of our nation strong.

Cease your vacant railing
For a fairy-tale time when
America was great.

Remember whatever era
You think that was
Had problems of its own.

Lay down your burdens
Of animosity and ignorance.
Only then will you be free.

Because hate yokes you now,
As surely as chains once enslaved
Our brothers and sisters.

Written August 17, 2017, in response to the events
 in Charlottesville, Virginia, the previous weekend.
©2017 Rebecca Bigelow

On First Concerts

My first ever concert was when I was seven; I didn’t pick the artist. My older sister had a mad crush on David Cassidy—a crush of the his-poster-over-the-bed, his-face-on-all-her-Tiger-Beat-magazines, his-music-on-her-45s variety. So for her birthday, my parents indulged her and bought tickets to see him at the Springfield Civic Center.

I don’t remember much about the concert—mostly screaming girls. My sister enjoyed every minute of it. The rest of us were clearly not in the target demographic. My mother, for years after, would wonder why they had paid good money for David Cassidy to shake his white-fringed-jumpsuit-wearing heinie at the audience for 90 minutes. I naively (but breathlessly) waited for the rest of the Partridge Family to come out. I was doomed to disappointment. Did the abstract-painted-modern-art school bus break down? Did Chris and Tracy have school the next day? It was years before the Milli-Vanilli scandal, so someone eventually had to explain to me that just because their faces were on the album cover did not mean they were either (a) a real family or (b) actually sang on the records. My dreams of hitting the road for a world tour with my family before third grade were crushed.

Flash forward a decade and a half, and I finally bought my first concert tickets on my own: Huey Lewis and the News. I didn’t have a crush on him—if he had posters and magazine covers, I never knew it—but I liked his everyman anthems, his explorations of acapella, his catchy horn section, and even his harmonica solos. My husband and I were young, newly married, and in grad school, but we squeezed the household budget and bought the tickets.

Held at Broome County Arena, it is still the concert to which we compare all others. I don’t remember screaming girls, but I do remember people dancing in the aisles, singing along, and begging for more than one encore. Huey had great stage presence, and everyone in the hall was happily along for the ride. We saw lots of bigger names later, but it turns out that the Beach Boys were fun, but so old they had to bring cheerleader-types to keep the crowd entertained; Paul McCartney looked tiny from our nosebleed seats at the Vet in Philadelphia; Chicago were lifeless and out of tune on stage; and Paul Simon was too loud (my ears literally rang for three days afterward, despite holding my hands over my ears for the entire concert).

We saw a lot of the greats that made up the soundtrack of the 80s and 90s, but I think one of the reasons I still have so much affection for Huey Lewis and the News is that I chose the concert myself, and I went with someone who also wanted to be there. Going was a rite of passage and I still look back on it fondly.

My sister, I have to think, finally realized she had terrible taste in first crushes, not to mention music; her later concerts were much more mainstream. Although, I admit to rolling my eyes when she confessed that she had gone to see Barry Williams—Greg Brady!—in Branson a couple of years ago. Maybe her taste hasn’t improved that much.

After we had kids, we took them to some of the concerts they wanted to see, starting with a parade of Disney Channel stars: Cheetah Girls, Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers. We learned to bring earplugs and, as the kids got older, we introduced them to more mainstream stuff—yes, even Huey. When they were teens, they had their own rites of passage. I happily dropped them at the Warped Tour—an all day concert featuring screamo and emo and latter-day punk. It was so not my thing, but they loved it.

And that is what the concert-going experience is supposed to be: a shared moment, a rite of passage, a fondly remembered first—whether it’s your technical first with David Cassidy’s jumpsuit or a real first with Huey Lewis’ cry for a Couple Days Off. But this week, thousands of kids, some on their own and some with their parents, attended a concert in Manchester, England. For a lot of them, it was probably their first concert. For twenty-two it was also their last concert. One man, and a handful of his associates, made sure that those in attendance would always remember it—but not because the singer had no stage presence, or was too loud, or because they had sung along and danced in the aisles for two hours. And that makes my heart hurt for those who were there.

I’m angry that something that should be remembered with joy or humor or fondness (or even irony years later if your taste in music changes) or any of a thousand other positive emotions can now only be remembered as a tragedy. I’m angry that those kids were not allowed to hold that elation for even a moment. Music should bring us together—a time to laugh, a time to dance. But this week it is a time to mourn: the senseless loss of life, the loss of childhood innocence, and the muting of the music.

But this last is temporary because music expresses all our emotions, from deepest sorrow to highest delight, so we’ll return to see the horn sections, to listen to the harmonies, and to wonder if the rest of the Partridge Family will show up. Because the music, and our need to share it, is greater than those who would silence it. The beat will go on.

 

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow

Quarter Rest Image: free clipart

A Day That Will Live in Infamy

guard-tower-hmwf-yoshio-okumoto-coll-500x313

A guard tower at Heart Mountain—
the barbed wire and armed guards were to keep people in.

Seventy-five years ago, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which established so-called Military Zones in the United States, a national policy based on fear and racism. This order laid the groundwork for the eventual removal and internment of tens of thousands of people of Japanese descent, including American citizens, people who were not convicted of any crime.

Sadly, this shameful stain on American history has actually been cited recently as a “precedence” for the potential registry and internment of people of the Muslim faith. Those who do not learn from history . . .

I’m using this anniversary and the rhetoric about suggested current bans as an opportunity to educate those who may be unfamiliar with this aspect of U.S. history. In 1992, I had recently earned my MA in history, and I was shocked at how hidden this chapter of our American past was. I don’t believe it rated a single paragraph in my high school history books, and when I chose the topic for my own capstone project as a grad student, much of the secondary source material was recent—as if historians themselves had only just discovered the topic.

After I wrote my thesis, Friends Journal, a Quaker monthly publication, announced they were dedicating their November 1992 issue to a retrospective of the internment experience. I penned the overview (which can be read in PDF form without leaving this website) that introduced the issue. My essay tells the story of internment in brief, from the issuance of 9066 to reparations. Other voices in that issue offered reflections from those who lived through the actual events on both sides of the camp fences and updates on apologies and healing.

Today, there are many more opportunities to learn about the camps and what happened seventy-five years ago than there were even in 1992. The Japanese American National Museum opening coincided with the fiftieth anniversary. Manzanar was also named a National Historic Site in 1992, although the interpretive museum would not open until 2004. The Rohwer museum opened its doors in 2013. And of course, George Takei, of Star Trek fame, interned as a child with his family at Rohwer, has been an advocate for bringing this story to the forefront, through his blog and his passion project, the musical Allegiance (Broadway run 2015–16).

If you want to learn more about this period, I invite you to explore the links in the additional reading section. I think people who truly open their hearts to these events—the tragedy of internment, the suffering of Japanese American families, and the understanding that the internment did absolutely nothing for American security during the war—will see that this is not a mistake we, as Americans, want to repeat.

Text : (C) 2017 Rebecca Bigelow;  Photo: National Archives


Additional Reading

Rebecca Bigelow, “Certain Inalienable Rights,” Friends Journal, November 1992. Note this is a link on Curiosity Seldom Pays. All other links are to external sites.

Friends Journal archives are available to paid subscribers if you want to read the entire issue on the subject of internment.

George Takei’s Allegiance, the musical about internment, is playing in select theaters nationwide on Sunday (tomorrow), February 19, 2017, to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of 9066. This is the filmed version of the Broadway production starring George Takei, Lea Salonga, and Telly Leung. Check the Fathom Events site to see if it is playing near you. Also note that fans are asking for the film version to be made available for in-home viewing, but there are no official announcements on this yet.

A selection of museum sites:

Heart Mountain (Wyoming)

The Japanese American National Museum

Manzanar National Historic Site (California)

Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center (Arkansas)