Free and Fair?

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It was a Twilight Zone moment. At a conference last summer commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Freedom Movement, veteran activists sat on stage alongside young people ready to start a movement of their own. Just days before the conference, the U.S. Senate had unanimously approved extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The panel was taking questions from the audience. I stepped up to the mike.

"I'd like to hear the panelists comment on the situation with voting rights."

The moderator repeated his earlier instructions: "The panelists will only be fielding questions on current issues so the young people can answer too."

Voting rights no longer current? This was the last thing I expected to hear. I trembled as I challenged the moderator. "But this is a current issue. There's Ohio 2004 and all the problems detailed in the Conyers report, and the Georgia Voter ID bill."

"No, didn't you hear?" the moderator insisted. "Voting rights renewal passed. It's not an issue anymore." Chastened, I took my seat.

What is so pernicious about the present assault on voting rights is that it remains invisible to those who don't believe it exists. The butterfly-ballot debacle of Florida 2000 was a massive case of "document illiteracy," according to a guest on NPR's Fresh Air. Vote flipping—when you touch the screen for one candidate and a vote appears to register for another—is caused by user error. Election administration is neutral, and anyone who says otherwise is just crying over a lost election.

If only it were that simple.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2007
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