Emancipation and Enfranchisement

By Phil Tajitsu Nash
Published January 3rd 2001 in Asian Week
On January 1, 2001, a ceremony was held at Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of George Washington, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the freeing of some of his slaves. In a personalizing touch seen at the Holocaust Museum and other places where macro issues are best understood on a micro scale, a card was handed to visitors as they entered, to help them understand the life of just one of the freed slaves. Descendants of some of the slaves were there as storytellers, reminding visitors that, while Washington made an important gesture, fewer than half of the 316 slaves were actually freed. While Washington privately expressed misgivings about slavery, he chose to emancipate his slaves only after his death, in his will.

Ironically, the legacy of slavery lived on 200 years later, in an election process in November 2000 that disenfranchised many African Americans. Antiquated voting equipment, insufficient staff at polling places, arbitrary removal of names from voting rolls, harassment by law enforcement officers, and other voting problems continued the disenfranchisement that has plagued this community since the birth of our nation (See www.naacp.org for details). What all the world saw in Florida after November 7th is only part of what goes on in poor and minority communities all around the nation during every election. It is nothing short of a national disgrace that both Democrats and Republicans do not make this issue Number One on the Congressional docket later this month.

President-elect Bush has called for bipartisanship, and one way he can show his devotion to this cause is to provide leadership in reforming our nation's voting practices. "One person, one vote" is meaningless if the votes are taken on antiquated machines, if voting places are understaffed, and if voting practices do not encourage and welcome voters.

A meeting of progressive activists organized by the Independent Progressive Politics Network [www.ippn.org ] and others in Washington December 1-3 resulted in a ten-point Voters' Bill of Rights, which is a good starting place to heal the national wounds that resulted from the election's aftermath. The Ten Points are:

1. Strong enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, a federal law flowing from the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which stated that "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Its provisions include assistance for language minorities, which has helped many Asian American, Native American, and Hispanic voters over the years.
2. Abolishment of the Electoral College, which allows a man to assume office on January 20th who received 500,000 votes less than his opponent, and who, like most recent presidents, received less than 50% of the popular vote.
3. Clean money elections, including a ban on "soft money" contributions and public financing of elections using systems like those in place in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Arizona, and many other countries.
4. Instant Runoff Voting, which would promote positive campaigning, foster coalition building, and eliminate "spoiler" candidacies because candidates would have to receive 50% plus 1 vote to prevail. In practice, voters would rank candidates as 1, 2, and 3, and if your #1 candidate was not in the top 2, then your second-choice candidate would get your vote. This process would continue until one candidate had 50% plus 1vote.
5. Proportional Representation, instead of the undemocratic "winner-take-all" system where 49% of voters might have 0% of the representation. Almost every democracy in the world, and many corporate charters, call for some form of proportional representation. See www.fairvote.org for details.
6. Voting rights for former prisoners, because ex-felons supposedly have "paid their debt" to society. Lifelong voting prohibitions disproportionately affect minorities, who are sometimes targeted by the criminal justice system and who have higher rates of incarceration than whites.
7. Make voting easier and more reliable by removing unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles to voter registration and voting. Other countries allow elections on weekends, have universal voter registration, and have voting precincts staffed with trained personnel. Here, despite the widespread use of computers in business and government, 44 states still have antiquated laws related to voter registration.
8. Easier candidate access to ballots, the press, and candidate debates, which would enliven our democracy, facilitate third party access, and decrease the voter apathy that leads to half of us not voting. It would break down the control of the stodgy two-party system, which has led to many candidates running unopposed due to lack of financial resources for challengers.
9. Creation of independent, non-partisan election administration bodies, which already are found in Canada and Mexico.
10. Statehood for the District of Columbia, which has more citizens than several states, but which has no voting representation in the House or Senate. The fact that they are mostly African American and mostly Democrats has held up Statehood for many years. See www.freespeech.org/dcstatehood for details.

Rev. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate next week, once said that "There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society, with a large segment of people in that society who feel that they have no stake in it, who feel that they have nothing to lose. People who have a stake in their society protect that society, but when they don't have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it."

While Dr. King was referring only to African Americans at that time, his words resonate for many Americans of all political affiliations, who were turned off by the post-election process. For the sake of the fragile democracy we all cherish, I hope that President-elect Bush, Vice President Gore, and our other national leaders will dedicate themselves to the Voters' Bill of Rights and other legislation that will bring the franchise to all Americans 200 years after Washington's historic act of emancipation.