No excuses, people: Vote while you can

Say what you will about Maryland, but be thankful this is not North Carolina or Texas or the state of my birth, Georgia. Here voting is generally encouraged. In other places, officials are outdoing themselves creating ways to keep people — especially those likely to vote for Democrats — as far away from ballots as possible.

Complaints are being lodged about ridiculous voter ID laws that in North Dakota have left more than 80,000 voters disenfranchised — many of them Native Americans — and about closed, relocated, hard-to-get-to or just plain inadequate polls in numerous states. “We should not in 2018 be revisiting 1960 tactics to prevent young people, African Americans and other people from simply casting a vote,” Derrick Johnson, head of the NAACP, says.

At its worst, blacks seeking to exercise a vote first guaranteed black men in 1870 and all women in 1920, had to do things like recite from memory passages from the U.S. Constitution or guess the number of jelly beans in a jar or the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. That’s why the 1965 Voting Rights Act was necessary. The law came about only because of bloodshed and lives sacrificed during protests, marches and boycotts in the deep South that began in earnest after World War II when returning soldiers refused to go along with the old order.

Since the U. S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act five years ago, the most regressive — and Republican-controlled — state legislatures have gone wild with their schemes to restrict access to the ballot box rather than open it as more forward-thinking democracies do.

Take Georgia. There the Republican candidate for governor used his current position as secretary of state to disqualify nearly 700,000 registrations last year and has put on hold about 53,000 this year — a disproportionate number of which are from black people. If you can’t make folks count jelly beans, you can ding them for a missing hyphen or middle initial.

Anyone casually following what politics have become could understandably be dissuaded by the dirty tricks and the negative advertising that fill the airwaves near election time. But as Sen. Corey Booker, the New Jersey Democrat, says: “They are trying to stop you from voting, and if you don’t vote, you’re playing into their trap. If you think, ‘Oh, it doesn’t make a difference,’ you’re playing into the trap.”

Most of us have it easy in Maryland. Online registration. Early voting. On-site registration during early voting. And, since 2016, ex-felons can take part in the electoral process. In some states, a felony conviction is a lifetime bar to voting.

Maryland is not perfect. This is most evident when it comes to the thousands of people with felonies on their records, some 40,000 of whom became eligible to vote when the law changed — against the wishes of Governor Hogan.

There is still confusion about whether people who have done their time are allowed to vote: They are. But get-out-the-vote volunteers find themselves having to explain that while the registration forms make you work past a passage that says to register you ”must not have been convicted of a felony.” You have to read on to ”or if you have, you have completed serving a court-ordered sentence of imprisonment.” The bottom line is, as the advocate Christopher Ervin says: “Basically people can vote as long as they are on the street.” That means people on probation or parole may register.

Try getting Armstead Jones, the city’s election director, to clarify that. In a very unsatisfactory conversation the other day, Mr. Jones told me that he had received a complaint about the wording of the registration forms and had sent it to the state. When pressed, he said he had actually passed the complaint to an aide and did not know whom the aide had subsequently contacted. Asked if he thought the wording was confusing, he said he had not read the form. “I don’t have a need to look at it,” he said. And so the conversation went.

The word is getting out, though, and that’s a good thing. So are the efforts of coalitions like Baltimore Votes and nonprofits like Communities United and even ride sharing companies — all of whom are offering rides to the polls for people who need them.

No excuses, people. Do what record numbers of Marylanders have done since Oct. 25: Vote. Early voting ends Thursday. And then there’s November 6.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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