The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his life for the cause of justice. Although he is mainly remembered for his work in civil rights, he died campaigning for fair treatment for poor people, regardless of race, and he spoke out, too, for the cause of peace at the height of the Vietnam War. When you think of his dreams — of fair treatment for all, of peace, of racial justice, or a fair shake for poor people — it is easy to wonder whether or not we are making progress towards realizing any of them. With the gap between rich and poor growing bigger than ever, and a political system that seems sometimes utterly broken, where can we find hope?
There’s hope in voting. The fight for voting rights was the centerpiece of Dr. King’s campaigns. Indeed, perhaps the greatest legacy that King’s generation of civil rights fighters gave us is the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Some 97 years after 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, the 1965 Voting Rights Act finally protected the right of Africans Americans to register and vote — and since then African Americans have done so in ever large numbers.
Unfortunately, there is still no comprehensive right to vote for all citizens, there are only specific protections from some types of disenfranchisement. You can’t have your right to vote taken away from you on account of your gender (thanks to the 19th Amendment) or your age (thanks to the 26th) or your race (the 14th), in many states you can still be prevented from voting if you don’t have an up-to-date photo ID. Many senior citizens and even elderly nuns have been turned away from voting for lack of ID… and the law disproportionately hits people in poverty and people of color. You can still be prevented from voting if you ever were convicted of a crime. And, even here in Massachusetts, if you miss the registration deadline (20 days out from Election Day) you can forget about voting. In 2008 alone, some 10,000 people registered after the deadline in Massachusetts. It is very clear: there’s still much to fight for, if we wish to vouchsafe the voting rights that Dr. King passed us, so we may pass them on to the next generation.
Despite the challenges, voter participation is increasing. People like to say that lots of folks are apathetic. They say that young people, or poor people, or even most people don’t care about politics, and that voter participation is decreasing. But it’s not true. Since 1996, voting has gone up in every presidential election, both here in Massachusetts and nationally. Looking at state and local elections, there’s been a steady trend toward increased voting. Boston saw more voters in 2011 than 2007 voting for City Council, and more voting in 2009 than 2005 for mayor. And statewide, more people voted in 2010 than in 2006.
A huge political year is coming. On November 6, you will vote in competitive races for US President and US Senate. Because of redistricting and retirements, there will be competitive races for Congress (at a minimum, in the far Western Mass seat, district 1; in the Brookline to Fall River seat, district 4; and on the North Shore, in district 6). The ripple effects of our state’s very successful redistricting process will continue the trend towards more competitive races down ballot as well. And, if you’re still not interested, ballot initiatives on medical marijuana, assisted suicide, teacher evaluations and auto-repair rules are coming, too.
The Senate race shaping up between Scott Brown vs. Elizabeth Warren contest will almost certainly be the most expensive race in the history of Massachusetts. And the terrible Citizens United means the possibility of millions in anonymous corporate money as well.
Bigger than 2008. In 2008, Massachusetts saw a record 3.1 million votes cast, despite the lack of a competitive races for Senate (John Kerry won re-election in a walk). A big part of that turnout, it’s true, came from excitement about the first time candidacy of Barack Obama. Some think that the recession and a lack of energy on the part of Obama’s supporters will bring turnout down from 2008. Yet folks said the same in 2010, when Governor Deval Patrick was running for re-election. In 2006, Patrick won with a similar grassroots wave, becoming the first African American governor of Massachusetts. Many thought 2010 would see lower turnout. Yet turnout was actually up. Why? Both the governor and his opponents ran better campaigns in 2010 than they did in 2006, or, more exactly, both the governor and his opponents started from a higher level of organization than they had in 2006. In 2010, governor began with his long list of local supporters from the 2006 race; while the governor’s chief opponent, Charlie Baker began with Scott Brown’s infrastructure from earlier in the year. All the same factors are in play to raise 2012 turnout above 2008, not to mention some $20 million or more of US Senate campaign money that Brown and Warren and others will spend to mobilize their supporters. And, all the down ballot fights, from US Congress to State Representative will raise turnout as well.
Nonpartisan efforts matter, too. The long-time impact of nonpartisan efforts to increase registration, participation and civic engagement (like nonprofitvote and our own work), quietly builds from year to year. If all goes well, turnout could be as high as 3.35 million, with 3.25 million a reasonable guess. We certainly can’t take it for granted. But if political activists continue to give time and money to campaigns, and if community organizations and volunteers of all types get involved in initiatives like National Voter Registration Day (September 25, sign up now), Massachusetts will see its higher turnout ever. Over the past nine years, the nonpartisan Civic Engagement Initiative has provided nearly $3 million to help community groups register, educate, and mobilize voters. Meanwhile, working with MassVOTE for nothing more than the occasional “thank you” from a newly registered voter, staff and volunteers at health centers, hospitals, shelters, nursing homes and colleges have quietly done their part to engage voters as well. Organizations focusing on new citizens and Latinos have been reaching out to the 25,000 people who gain their citizenship each year.
Staying hopeful — and being vigilant — in the fight for voting rights. The more voters, the better the outcome. No one can predict yet who will win the race for President nationally or the race for US Senate here. But MassVOTE has a simple belief, inherited from Dr. King and his generation: elections where everyone participates may not always yield good results… but low turnout elections almost never do.
There are many reasons to be concerned about the sorry state of campaigns and elections, both in Massachusetts and nationally. There are big problems, even here in Massachusetts: from folks impersonating election officials to attempts to reduce participation with unneeded voter ID laws; to the lack of simple audits and random hand-counts to confirm the accuracy of voting machine results; to the failure (at least so far) of legislators to move to modernize our voter registration system to let people register to vote online or on election day; to the wave of unprecedented, shadowy corporate money coming into to buy elections and intimidate politicians — there’s a ton to do to fix our system. Those are the challenges we must face between now and November 6. The road ahead is not easy.
But for those of us who care about the health of democracy in Massachusetts, the likelihood of high turnout, with strong participation from young people, poor people, people of color, and everyone, is at least one thing we can be grateful for. As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., as we re-dedicate ourselves to his fight for voting rights, there is reason for hope.