Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Gatekeeper: Open that Gate!

It's my first time. I am a deputy registrar; I have the power and authority to register people to vote. Our Springfield Action Team took on the goal to register as many people with disabilities as we can.

I'm drawn to history; fascinated by voting rights history and the struggle for the vote. I began thinking of the role of Registrars and Deputies played in people's history; most of it was not good.

Our Founding Fathers started the American Revolution with the battle cry, "No taxation without representation," because they wanted the right to vote for their own leaders, representatives and end British rule. Yet, when the war ended, who got the vote? Who got to pick their representatives? White men of means: landowners and merchants.

How'd they do it?

How did they protect newly found right to vote? They created jobs to shield the voting booth from, 'undesirables;' and gave them the misnomered title of "registrar". Gatekeeper would have been more accurate; someone who guards passage through a gate. It is the registrar and deputies that stand between a would-be voter and the voting machine.

For much of our country's history registrars were used to keep classes and races of people from voting. Those outside, that had no voice, were: people of color, women, poor whites, native people, people considered "simple" or "feeble", people who could not control their body movements; people who could not see or hear... us... people with disabilities. It was the registrar's job to keep people like you and me from exercising our right to vote.

The ruling class developed hurdles that a would-be voter had to pass to show himself worthy of the vote. There were: literacy tests, rules that a voter must be a property owner, grandfather or exemption clauses, character tests and criminal disenfranchisement.

These implements were the registrar's toolkit; what he used to deny the vote to black and native people, but also undesirable whites (people with disabilities and others). If the laws would not keep certain undesirables away, intimidation would. Law enforcement was not shy about keeping people from voting.

And now I, a woman with a disability, are one; a registrar, the gatekeeper. Ain't that a kick in their collective backsides!

How did it change?

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. ~Frederick Douglass

It changed because people fought and struggled against those rich white land owners and merchants. They agitated and plowed; the seeds of change grew. Grassroots movements by African Americans and women, and even some forward thinking white men fought to get it changed. I witnessed people being jailed, beaten, and murdered for their right to get past the gatekeeper for the opportunity to vote. And, after years of struggle, constitutional amendments and civil rights legislation changed the law of the land; it became every person's birthright to be able to vote.

Now, I am not so naive to know that voting fraud, voting manipulation and voter intimidation has happened to voters in every election since reconstruction. But, I have a hope; the pendulum in swinging.

As people with disabilities we still face barriers; which means we will still need to agitate and plow. Accessible voting places, booths, machines and access to print are some of the obstacles we still face in some polling places. Besides that, we have personal barriers we must struggle against.

We are the last of the disenfranchised to take advantage of the power to the vote. The percentage of people with disabilities who vote is abysmal compared to other oppressed people's voting percentages. We must believe that our voices and votes count.

In a 2002 article in the Civil Rights Journal, a journalist noted that people with disabilities were the sleeping giant of American politics. We've yet to awaken the giant. But it's not too late.

The New Gate Keepers

Now registrars across the nation, north, south, east and west have a new job description. Now their (my) job is to throw the gates open as widely possible ... Hell, let's just take the gate off the hinges and tear down the fence while we are at it. We now welcome all would-be voters to the democratic process. All of them; all of us.

Instead of keeping people from voting, our job is to aggressively find people who are not yet registered; help them through the process; make sure their simple paperwork is in order; get their signature and, that's really about it.

When I think about the fact that it's been in my lifetime that most of these changes have occurred, I get chills. Voting is a privilege given to me by generations of people who knew the ruling class was wrong and faced them down. I am honored to be a registrar and voter in their memory. If that sounds a little sappy, or bourgeois, so be it; I feel connectioned to them.

Register to Vote.

If you are already registered, consider becoming a registrar. It takes about 15 minutes at your county clerk's office. Or, volunteer for a political campaign; work on accessible transportation for your brothers and sisters on Election Day. Make sure you know about early voting and tell your friends. Make phone calls. Send emails and letters.

And for sure, head to the polls on Election Day. Let politicians see the giant is awake, bright-eyed and voting.

2 comments:

Michael said...

Love the way you give significance to the mundane act of registering to vote. It's great to remember that the struggle to be able to vote is a struggle to have control over ones own life.

Chuck said...

That was a wonderful article to start the day with. I hope you don't mind, but I copied and pasted on a word document and intend to place it on my office door.

I've been watching the steady erosion of services in my area for all the poor, which include my people, which is how I think of my consumers. I talked to a woman who is living in a home with no electricity yesterday. She didn't spend money on bingo, she doesn't go around being irresponsible, she simply can't keep up with the rising costs of things. It breaks my heart to see things like that. I do my best to guide people to places that can help, but those places are tapped dry then their is no help.

So what does this have to do with voting? Well the more of us who vote and the more of us who gather together to protest the mass stupidity and injustices both our federal government and our state government have heaped upon our heads the better. It takes numbers of voters to make a change and it takes marching, and lobbying, all of it. All do their part.

My son and I were talking this morning about it and I told him that voting should be mandatory. Maybe then, when each person has to participate in the decision making process our country can come to a semblance of rationality.