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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Bailing on Straws

Costons soda_fountain 1909

My mother liked to take us to an old-fashioned soda fountain for special occasions when we were young. I liked the coin-operated vintage music machines that played songs from piano rolls or hole-punched metal disks. I liked the marble table tops and the wrought-iron chairs. I liked the egg salad sandwiches cut into triangle quarters, and of course the milk shakes were excellent. The only thing I didn’t like about this trip to a time my great-grandmother might have found familiar was the paper straw.

The paper straw was, I felt, a worthless invention, as it became soggy after a few minutes in my chocolate malted. The waitress would bring a new one, of course, but I’d run through a few of the paper straws before my shake was done. Authenticity triumphed over convenience here, so if you wanted to go on this outing with Mom, you just learned to suck it up. At home, we had a set of pastel-colored, straight, aluminum straws from when my mom was a girl. They had a little paddle on the bottom. My mother said that was to scoop up your milk shake. I thought they were pretty and retro, so I liked to use them, but they were a pain to keep clean, so they didn’t come out very often.

The older I got, the more abundant the plastic straw seemed, although it is quite likely that I just did not see them very often as a kid because we did not eat out that much. Today, if you order a drink out, the plastic straw is often already plunked in your beverage when it arrives. So many of us use these straws that, in the United States alone, we go through half a billion plastic straws each day (yes, billion with a B). That’s shocking given there are only 325 million of us in the country!

Sumerian Straw

The first straw was found in the tomb of a Sumerian dating from circa 3000 BCE. Art in the tomb shows two Sumerians drinking beer with straws from a large jar, presumably to avoid the sediment at the bottom of the container, and a gold, inlaid straw was found in that same location. Of course that is just the first evidence of straw use. As long as there were hollow reeds and grasses, ancient people were likely using them as straws. In fact, this natural use of grasses gave us the modern straw, as the inventor of my childhood frustration, the paper straw, didn’t like the grassy taste his rye straw gave to his afternoon adult beverage as it disintegrated into the alcohol. To fix this travesty, Marvin Chester Stone wound paper around a pencil, coated it with paraffin, and promptly patented that sucker in 1888.

paper straws

There were improvements along the way to the modern plastic straw: Joseph B. Friedman made the straw bend. He received a patent for that in 1937, creating the accordion shape by crimping a paper straw on a screw, and by 1939 he was selling a lot of them to hospitals because they made it easier for reclining patients to drink. Plastic straws came in, competing with paper straws at first, because the plastic ones were too buoyant for fizzy drinks; plastic finally won the straw wars because the plastic straw could be jabbed through a plastic lid, whereas a paper straw could not. Indeed, by the time I was a kid, the plastic straw was ubiquitous, and the paper ones, like my nemesis found at ye olde soda shoppe, were old-timey.

And with the rise of fast food and more people eating out, we arrive at 2018 and 1.5 straws per person per day. Of course, if you are in the straw business, this is great news. If you’re a sea creature, not so much. The plastic in straws doesn’t biodegrade—it just breaks down into ever smaller pieces—so the problem of plastic straws in the environment doesn’t go away. Regrettably, straws are also hard to recycle. Most are made of #5 plastic, which certain recyclers will take, but just as they float in fizzy drinks, they are also too light to make it reliably through the recycling machines. They bounce off the belts and fall through the screens. They end up in landfills or, worse, blowing around in the environment, where they often end up in the ocean. In fact, plastic straws are now one of the top-ten items found in beach cleanups, and zoos often don’t allow them because they too easily end up in the animal enclosures.  Animals may think the straws are food and ingest them or otherwise become entangled with them. One viral video this spring graphically showed a sea turtle having a plastic straw removed from its nose, where it was obstructing its airway and causing breathing issues.

plastic straws

Luckily, people are becoming increasingly aware of the plastic straw problem. The United Kingdom announced they would ban all single-use plastics (straws, drink stirrers, etc.), and the law is set to go into effect next year. Seattle’s law banning straws begins July 1. Reimagined paper straws (that thankfully don’t collapse as quickly as they did in days of yore), bamboo straws, compostable straws, even pasta straws are being tried in various markets. We bought sets of metal and silicon straws for home use, and the “hard to clean” aspect of my mother’s metal straws was solved because they came with flexible brushes, so you can give the insides a good swab.

Out in the world, we are learning to refuse the straw. This isn’t as easy as it sounds because it is so ingrained for the waitstaff to give a straw with your water or soda. The key is to try to remember to say you don’t need a straw when you order, otherwise your drink may come with the straw already in. Often the waitstaff is trained to leave straws on the table when they set down the drinks, and we’ve had this happen even after we said no to the straw. Then the trick is to get the wait person to pick the still-wrapped straw up and return it to the pocket of his or her apron, because if the straw is still on the table at the end of the meal, the bus person is likely to just clear it with the rest of the trash.

Actually, this is a conversation starter with the waitstaff. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many of them are aware of the problem and say they are actively working to get their managers to make a change (although they admit the constrawversy will continue as long as the plastic ones remain the most economical). Of course there are people who actually need plastic straws to drink because of a disability or medical issue, but the rest of us can cut straw use by refusing the straw or using a personal travel straw while out.

Still, you may say, this straw thing is only a small part of our plastic use. And that’s true, but once a straw goes into use, it has a life expectancy of less than an hour from unwrapping to trash, so it is an easy place to think about reducing our dependency on plastic. We aren’t going to solve our pollution issue by banning straws alone, but it is an excellent first step on our way to the last (plastic) straw.

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow;
Photo 1: Costons Soda Fountain, 1909, Public Domain;
Photo 2: The Met, Public Domain;
Photo 3: Stone’s Julep Straws Ad, Public Domain;
Photo 4: Horia Varlan, Wiki Commons


Resources:

Video of turtle having straw removed from its nose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw

Patent for the bendy straw: https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/01/04/f2/13db9a8c162c5b/US2094268.pdf

The Met’s page on the Sumerian straw artwork (see upper right of photo): https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/324572

Additional Reading:

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/11/the-amazing-history-and-the-strange-invention-of-the-bendy-straw/248923/

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/06/disposable-america/563204/

https://www.bonappetit.com/entertaining-style/trends-news/article/history-of-the-straw