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

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)

Science Is Golden

I’m what you might call science adjacent. I’m not a scientist, but I keep crossing paths with them. As an editor, I spend a lot of time correcting their grammar, and on a day-to-day basis, I share my house with two of them: my husband and our daughter.

I may have ended up as an English and history major, but I’ve always liked science. It’s useful for everyday life. Need to bake a cake? Chemistry will help you there. Planting a garden? Show gratitude to botany for your knowledge of Hardiness Zones. Need to know how scary a theme park ride is? Ask about the gravitational force on Space Mountain (calculated by a local news team1 as more than 3.5), and you can nope right out of that ride thanks to physics.

Science appeals to my logical side. For a theory to be accepted, it has to be replicable, so scientists have to be able to lay out all the steps for how they reached their conclusion. “Because I said so,” may be the fallback position of frustrated parents everywhere, but it would not fly in a peer-reviewed science journal. And when science gets things wrong—and it does, after all the earth is not flat, there are no canals on Mars, and the planet Vulcan only exists in the Star Trek universe2—other scientists eventually correct the mistake with new evidence.

Scientists don’t know everything, nor do they claim to, and they don’t always explain things to lay people in a way that they can understand. Sometimes their scientific bent even gets them into trouble. When we were dating, my husband told me he was 99 percent sure that he loved me, but he could never be 100 percent sure because he was a scientist.3 I married him anyway.

The upshot of all this is when the vast majority of scientists agree on something, it behooves us to listen. Scientists agree that climate change is real, and 97 percent of climate change scientists agree that humans are causing it. Now, granted, that is not as certain as my husband is that he loves me, but it’s pretty darn close.

So when scientists tell us that climate change is real (and coming soon to a city near you!), we should listen.  After all, if you were in the way of stampeding heffalumps, and someone yells, “Heffalumps!” to warn you, it would be unreasonable to stand around debating the origins, causes, and motivations of A.A. Milne characters run amok. No, the first thing any reasonable person would do is to try to stabilize the situation: get out of the way, seek shelter, or otherwise try to reduce the number of rogue creatures escaped from the Hundred Acre Wood.4

The same theory applies to climate change. Even without agreement on the causes, it is clear that there are things we can do to mitigate the effects of climate change and to try to stabilize the situation. I know I’m just an English and history major, but it seems to me that we can reduce our carbon footprint now and worry about the whys and wherefores later. After all, the planet doesn’t care where exactly the greenhouse gases are coming from, all that matters is to reduce them.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for the current administration to recognize the heffalump, er, elephant in the room. We can each take steps to limit our own carbon footprints. And with these few small individual steps, together we could make great strides. That said, governments can create the most change because they can affect general policy. If a government is unwilling to act, it makes sense to ask, “Who benefits if we don’t do those things?” The answer seems to be that certain corporations, politicians, and individuals have a vested self-interest in keeping carbon emissions unregulated.

But climate change is only one example of science under attack by the current administration. Being science adjacent, I’ve been alarmed this week when our new president has set in motion several anti-science policies, including issuing gag orders on science communities and canceling long-scheduled scientific conferences. Silence may be golden, but in this case it may be deadly. For science to thrive, research needs to see the light of day, so that other scientists can hold it to the high standards that come from reproducible results. Silencing the scientific community when we are on the cusp of a global crisis is crazy. Scientists are pushing back with alt-websites and planned marches on Washington, but we non-scientists need to speak up as well.

Even if you mixed up mitosis and meiosis throughout your high school biology class, you can still appreciate science—from the computer you are reading this on to the life-saving medications that extend both the quality and quantity of life to the special effects used in the latest blockbuster.  I promise you can learn about these things without having to memorize a single formula. If your current home is free from vector-borne diseases (translation: bugs that carry scary illnesses that they then transmit to humans) or you can get a variety of fruits and vegetables from the local supermarket year round, and you’d like to keep these things, consider reading up on climate change. By learning how to help—from recycling to speaking up for scientists in the wild—you can make a difference. Anyone who likes living on this planet has a stake in the outcome.  As the protest sign says: There Is No Planet B.

 

Text ©2017 by Rebecca Bigelow

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  1. See http://forums.wdwmagic.com/threads/orlandos-local-6-news-tests-g-forces.78170/ for discussion of G forces on Disney rides.
  2. Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier, a nineteenth-century mathematician who had successfully used math to predict the existence of Neptune, hypothesized the planet Vulcan could be found in Mercury’s orbit. Other scientists confirmed its existence at first, but later scientists realized that the anomalies in the orbit were not caused by a new planet but by the proximity to the sun. See an article on Real Clear Science for further discussion.
  3. This space available for the rebuttal and justification to be provided by said husband.
  4.  Apologies to A.A. Milne and his fans. No heffalumps were harmed in the writing of this piece.

________________

Additional Reading

For now, both the EPA and NASA have climate change websites available.

This is a list of the alt-twitter sites set up by scientists after the gag orders started rolling out. Many of these also have Facebook pages.

Rolling Stone magazine published an article in 2015 that discussed some of the effects of climate change that were already noticeable and happening at a much faster rate than predicted.

This site messes with my OCD a little bit. They advertise 50 ways individuals can help combat climate change, but then they only list 49. Overlook that and read the list anyway.

If you have kids, NASA has a page just for them.