In the 1970s a group of young Americans put their foot down, breaking a barrier to voting in the United States. The age limit was dropped, allowing 18-year-olds the right to vote. But today many people are still turned off by the democratic process in the United States because it is filled with barriers to voting for quite a few of its citizens. However, there are ways to legally get around at least some of them.
Helping the Blind
Mississippi Secretary of State Eric Clark announced Sept. 24 at the Mississippi School for the Blind and Deaf that voter-registration forms will be more accessible for vision-impaired people. They are now available in Braille for blind voters and in exceptionally large print for vision-impaired voters. The National Organization on Disability reports that 20 percent fewer people with disabilities vote than people without disabilities. "This is a step forward to improving access to the polls for all voters in Mississippi," Clark said at the press conference. "And by 2006, we'll have voting machines that will ensure the right to vote a secret ballot for every Mississippian, regardless of disability."
Absentee, Not Absent
One solution for the physically challenged and others is absentee voting. The way to vote with an absentee ballot is to get a registration form from the circuit clerk's office. When you complete it and send it back, you will receive an absentee ballot which has to be sent in by mail by the Saturday before an election or by Friday if you are delivering it by hand. (For more information, see page 13).
Absentee voting can cause problems in elections, however, because older, less mobile people can more easily be pressured to vote one way or the other, because they aren't protected by the privacy of voting booths. Absentee ballots are also open to fraud: voting in the name of a dead person by absentee ballot is the most common form of voter fraud in the state. At a Stennis Institute luncheon at Hal & Mal's on Sept. 27, Clark said that one way to help quell this kind of voter fraud is to clean up the voter rolls: "The five commissioners in each county will receive a list from our office of each person that is dead or has left the area. This will help them purge the rolls."
A new barrier to voting was introduced in the last session in the state Legislature. A Voter Identification bill was proposed in the House of Representatives to require voters to show identification at the polls. After an emotional session in the House chambers centering on the concern that voter ID would intimidate black voters who remember Jim Crow days, the bill was amended to include a clause exempting people age 65 and older from showing identification. Gov. Haley Barbour held a special session this summer with voter ID at issue, alongside his plan for more tort reform in the state. He said he would not sign the bill with the exemption in place. But Barbour eventually dropped the issue, focusing instead on getting lawsuit damage caps through the Legislature.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson says the problem with the logic behind the call for voter identification in Mississippi is that it is not needed; most voter fraud in the state occurs with absentee ballots. The bill is yet to be passed.
As a part of the voter identification bill, first-time, non-violent felons would have been able to be reinstated as voters. A widely held belief is that disenfranchising felons—a disproportionate number of whom are black and perhaps more likely vote Democratic—is a part of a Republican plan to keep out the black vote. By not allowing felons to vote, studies show that 13 percent of black men will be locked out the polls. "This has a huge effect on elections but also on black communities which see their political clout diluted. No one has yet explained to me how letting ex-felons who have served their sentences into polling booths hurts anyone," said Jessie Allen of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University in an article at http://www.dawn.com In Mississippi, felons can apply through their state legislator to have their voting rights reinstated by the House.
As we head into the November elections, there is some fear of voter intimidation at polls across the country, based on reports out of Florida in 2000 that blacks were being targeted in myriad ways by Republican operatives. The U.S. Department of Justice has sent investigators to 12 states to look into complaints of voter intimidation of minorities. Democracy Now urges all voters to carry the phone number, 1-800-253-3931, to the polls with them this year in order to report any incidents of voter intimidation. You can also report voter intimidation to the Mississippi Secretary of State's office at 359-1350.