By Linda Tarrant-Reid
We all know the drill, lawn signs pop up out of nowhere a month before the actual election, mailboxes are stuffed with campaign literature, and robocalls asking for your vote interrupt your evening meal. I’m talking about campaign season 2011. The General is a whole other ballgame. This election season is unusual because it is an off year for federal elections, meaning the only Congressional seats in play were those up for special elections. Also, as a result of the 2010 U.S. Census, district lines had to be redrawn creating new legislative districts and, in some cases, extending or shrinking existing districts potentially affecting federal, state and local election outcomes.
In special elections for Congressional seats this year, California and Nevada, each had one seat to fill, and New York had two. California’s 36th district elected to the House of Representatives, Janice Hahn (D); Mark Amodei (R) won the Senate race in Nevada’s 2nd district; Kathy Hochul (D) was elected to the House of Representatives in New York’s 26th district to a seat vacated by Republican Chris Lee; and Democrat Anthony Weiner’s seat in the House representing the 9th Congressional District in New York City was won by Republican Bob Turner in a September election.
There are also four gubernatorial races that will be held in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi on November 8th and a special election in West Virginia on October 4th. A slew of municipal elections will also take place this November including, but not limited to, mayoral races in the cities of Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Denver, Phoenix, San Francisco, Mt. Vernon and New Rochelle.
I just recently attended a fundraiser for a local candidate that I am supporting and was inspired by the attendance of 400+ supporters. This campaign season, I am intentionally volunteering, contributing and promoting my candidates to friends, family and sometimes colleagues. It’s not that I haven’t been politically active in the past because I have, but because of the economy, the divisiveness of the political battles, on all levels of government, and my need to have input into how my future will be shaped, I feel that now it is imperative that I participate in the political process and voice my choice, loud and clear.
My family has a long tradition of participating in the political process. My parents, both born in Florida, made a big deal over my sister and me registering to vote and receiving our Voter Registration Cards. No matter whether elections were held for presidents, governors, mayors, council members, school budgets, and trustees, my parents always insisted that we all go to the polls together. And to this day, carrying on the tradition, my family and I trek to the polls together. A lesson in civics for everyone! My sister Gale and I also went door-to-door as teenagers registering people to vote in our community in the 1960s. She also traveled South with a group of students from New York to help with the voter registration drive in North Carolina.
Our right to vote came after a hard won fight. When the United States of America was created in 1776, the Constitution, which was adopted in 1787, only gave white male property owners the right to vote in 1790. The 15th Amendment of 1870 guaranteed former enslaved males the right to vote and protected the voting rights of all males. And women received the right to cast their ballots in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment and in 1924 Native Americans were granted citizenship and the right to vote.
For African Americans, even though the U.S. Constitution guaranteed our right to vote, it did not stop states, primarily in the South, from passing laws and statutes that made it impossible for Black folks to cast their ballots.
Poll taxes (a payment to vote in an election which poor African Americans could not afford to pay) and literacy tests (an exam for Blacks, only, as a requirement to vote), along with fear and intimidation were used to keep African Americans away from the voting booths. The 24th Amendment ratified January 23, 1964, prohibited poll taxes and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended the use of literacy tests.
The summer of 1964, referred to as the Freedom Summer in the archives of the Civil Rights Movement, was the climax of a full on campaign to get Blacks registered in southern states with the worst voting rights records. Mississippi was targeted and thousands of white and Black college students from across the United States descended on the state to register voters, work at Freedom Schools that taught young African American students history and civics, and to be the face of the political movement for voters’ rights.
Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Freedom Summer was pivotal in the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), comprised of disenfranchised Black voters and white supporters. The MFDP was determined to be heard and elected delegates to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey where they challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation and demanded seats at the convention.
The impassioned speech given by MFDP Delegate Fannie Lou Hamer to the Credentials Committee about trying to register to vote in racist Mississippi was history-changing and was carried, unedited, on many TV stations providing the country with an electrifying first-person account of discrimination at the polls.
After much turmoil, Lyndon Johnson won the Democratic nomination and was elected President. During his first term, Johnson passed a series of Civil Rights Legislation including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and, in 1967 Johnson signed an act that extended the Civil Rights Commission for five more years.
History shows us that change is affected through the ballot box and electing the right people could change our lives for the better. These are difficult times, but no challenge is insurmountable. Today, we should make a commitment to learn more about the candidates and how they stand on the issues and use our votes to make a difference.