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Voting alone will not solve social and economic inequality

On Facebook, in Founders and in this very paper, a small contingent of Mills folks have been speaking out against the Occupy movement. While some simply don’t see the protestors’ issues as valid, many are sympathetic, but advocate for alternative means of being heard. The most popular of these alternatives is voting.

I appreciate the sympathy, but this argument is shockingly naive. A huge number of people living in this country can’t vote.  As of 2000, 70 percent of states had constitutional provisions barring the right to vote from people with mental or emotional disabilities.  Innumerable people of color, working poor, elder and trans* folks are disenfranchised due to ID requirements at the polls.  Youth under 18, people without homes, undocumented workers and those here on visa can’t vote at all.  Also, 5.3 million Americans have lost the right to vote due to felony convictions as of 2007, 1.4 million of whom are ex-offenders, according to

Of those who can, another huge number only gained that right from protesting (does the word “suffrage” ring a bell to anyone?).  And furthermore, of those of us who can, voting ballot items typically don’t deal with the issues protesters are focusing on.  And when they do, the rhetoric around them is deeply classist, racist and not in thepublic interest.

Of those disenfranchised by being barred from voting, 1.4 million are black men, with most states seeing 16-28 percent of their black male population unable to vote.  Black men only earned the right to vote less than 50 years ago, and they got that right through protest.   History books will tell you it was 1869 via the 15th Amendment, but racist grandfather clauses, “literacy tests” — actually trivia questions — and poll taxes de facto barred blacks from voting.

Those peaceful sit-ins, marches through Selma and walks on Washington? Those did more to further the cause of Civil Rights and enfranchisement than any lofty idealism of waiting patiently for the next election, hoping white folks would get with it and mark a little bubble giving blacks the opporunity to join them at the poll booth a few feet away. Blacks took the matter into their own hands — probably wise, given those white folks’ kids are now voting in “tough on crime” laws that disproportionately imprison and disenfranchise people of color, such as gang injunctions.

And don’t be so confident that the answer is to go to college, get some perspective and vote accordingly. Just this week, Mississippi joined six states who require an ID card to vote. In addition the 21 million people, usually poor and people of color, who don’t have access to IDs, most college students don’t or can’t get new IDs when they attend colleges outside their home state.

Yes, these students can vote by absentee ballot in their home state. But restricting their enfranchisement to a state in which they don’t even reside doesn’t make much sense given the impact of local and state taxes on college tuition and fees.

Resources for Learning More About Voting Restrictions:
1. SentencingProject.Org:  A national organization working for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing law and practice, and alternatives to incarceration.
2.  A nonpartisan, nonprofit website that presents facts, studies, and pro and con statements on questions related to whether or not felons should be allowed to vote.
3. Ici.Umn.Edu:  A federally designated University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. The Institute improves policies and practices to ensure that all children, youth, and adults with disabilities are valued by, and contribute to, their communities of choice.
4)  A non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on the fundamental issues of
democracy and justice.

And again, even where voting is available to all college students in their immediate area, it’s a right they only enjoy because of protest. College students under the age of 21 gained the right to vote because protesters during the Korean and Vietnam War made enfranchisement at 18 a pet issue. Those protesters were loud and annoying and cranky because they could be drafted and sent to die in a colonialist war but couldn’t vote.  But they weren’t sitting on their hands hoping their parents would write lots of letters to their Congressional officials asking pretty please.

Don’t get me wrong:  Voting is great; civic participation is great. But relying on voting to help victims of predatory lending, underwater mortgages and ruthless foreclosures, in a climate where popular discourse simply casts these folks as irresponsible, is naive. So is relying on voting to turn around the racist criminal justice system when popular discourse paints men of color as drug pimps and women of color as welfare queens. Or relying on voting to remove ID restrictions when popular discourse constructs undocumented workers as “illegal aliens” who taint voting with fraud. So is relying on voting when popular discourse doesn’t address income inequality in capitalism at all — at least not until protesters start sitting in public spaces making a fuss about it.

Arguing that elections are a more useful alternative to protesting shows a distinct lack of awareness not only about protesting, but about voting. U.S. residents don’t have equal access to the polls, nor toward feminist, anti-racist, pro-worker information about elections.

The Occupy movement has changed the national conversation more than any election. Vote if you can, and in the meantime, learn your history and be allies to this movement.