We Cannot Afford Not to Vote

This piece was originally published in Orlando Sentinel on September 24, 2019.

The other evening at a social gathering, a gentleman asked me what could be done about decisions our Legislature had made that he believed to be onerous. He was upset about the recent maneuverings around the implementation of Amendment 4, the citizen’s initiative that was approved by nearly 65% of the voters in the 2018 election, restoring the right to vote to returning citizens (ex-felons) who have paid their dues to society. My response: “Vote.”

Patricia Brigham

Patricia Brigham

We’ve often heard the refrain: “Why vote? It doesn’t do any good.” Certainly, there are causes for concern, such as the late-night machinations of legislators regarding Amendment 4. Sixty-five percent of Floridians voted to pass the initiative, yet their votes were not respected by lawmakers in Tallahassee. So, some may ask — why register? Why vote?

Because we can’t afford not to. A voting public is part and parcel of a democracy.

Ask the group of students at the University of Florida, led by Megan Newsome, an ambassador for the Andrew Goodman Foundation. The foundation was formed as a tribute to Goodman, one of the three American activists who traveled to Mississippi in 1964 to work on the “Freedom Summer” project and register black people to vote. The three were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Fast forward to 2017. When Newsome discovered that early voting sites were prohibited on college and university campuses, she became determined to right this wrong.

Newsome and a handful of university students, along with the Andrew Goodman Foundation and the League of Women Voters of Florida, took the issue to court. In 2018 Federal Judge Mark Walker ruled that the prohibition violated three amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In Judge Walker’s words, the prohibition revealed “a stark pattern of discrimination.”

If Newsome had done nothing, 60,000 students who voted early on campuses may not have voted or registered to vote. In leading this effort, Newsome and her fellow students honored those who lost their lives so that the disenfranchised could vote.

The fight continues today. Students, the foundation and the League are back in court after the Legislature slipped in an 11th-hour amendment to SB 7066 that targets early voting sites, stating the sites must have “sufficient non-permitted parking.” Few university campuses have “non-permitted” parking.

The fight also continues to make sure returning citizens can register and vote. After the Legislature, again in a hearing late in the session, voted to add unpaid fines and fees  a Jim Crow-era “poll tax” — to its interpretation of implementing Amendment 4, the League along with the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice and others went to court.

So, why register to vote and exercise that constitutional right when our lawmakers often don’t respect the will of the voters? Susan B. Anthony, a key leader of the suffrage movement, would no doubt have had an answer. In 1872 Anthony was arrested for illegally voting 48 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified, finally giving women the right to vote. When Anthony was ordered to pay a $100 penalty for casting her ballot, she responded, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty,” and she never did.

How can we justify not voting when people have not only been arrested but died so that others might have that right? We register to vote because history demands that we share a responsibility so that one day, we might have a fair democracy.

I thought about this as I reflected on the gentleman’s question during my ride home from the social gathering. On Tuesday’s National Voter Registration Day, as we do nearly every day, the League of Women Voters will fan out across the state to celebrate a citizen’s constitutional right to vote by registering people — of all parties — to do just that. In doing so, we honor those who went before us, risking their lives so that people of color and women could register and vote. And only by continuing to vote will the day come when all voters are respected, and voter suppression becomes a quaint notion of the past.

The author is president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.