The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You can’t ever take for granted the right to vote

A voter delivers her ballot to a drop box in Maryland. (Julio Cortez/AP)

There’s nothing like a drive from Maryland, where I live, to Louisiana, where I was born, to refresh my appreciation for the right to vote.

Cutting through Mississippi on Interstate 20, there’s an exit sign for the James Chaney Jr. highway. You can take it north toward the town of Philadelphia. That’s where Chaney and two other civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan during Freedom Summer 1964.

They’d been volunteering to help Black people register to vote. Just the sight of that highway sign quickens my pulse.

Passing through Jackson, Miss., brings back memories too. It was June 1963. I was 8 years old, at home in Shreveport, watching my dad and a neighbor staring solemnly at a TV news broadcast. A man had just been killed while standing in his driveway in Jackson.

It would take several years for me to appreciate the significance of what had happened — that the man was Medgar Evers of the NAACP and that he had been assassinated by a white supremacist for helping Black people register to vote.

Mississippi civil rights museum honors Medgar Evers

There are memorial markers throughout the South indicating where people were lynched or shot or blown up with bombs for trying to vote or help someone else vote. In places such as Colfax and Opelousas, La., scores of Black people were massacred during the post-Reconstruction era to keep them away from the polls.

Some were beaten and harassed or lost their jobs for trying to vote. Some couldn’t afford the poll tax. Or couldn’t pass the literacy tests composed of counting bubbles on a bar of soap or reciting some arcane amendment to a state constitution. The tests were administered only to Black people.

Dad and I used to talk a lot about the bad old days. Neither his parents nor their siblings ever got a chance to vote. But we don’t talk about those times so much anymore. Mainly because it seems to him like the bad old days are coming back. The voting rights acts were supposed to have ended all that. But now those and other civil rights are being undone and Dad just doesn’t want to go through all that again.

Neither do I.

Heading back to my home in Prince George’s County, I cut through Alabama, where every highway sign resonates with historic heartbreak and hope — Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery. (Visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, where victims of lynchings are honored, and the meaning of your right to vote will be renewed.)

In Maryland, the process of voting is as it should be everywhere in this country. I can vote early. I can vote by mail, by drop box or in person. The state board of elections website shows you how to register to vote, how to get a ballot sent to your home, how to properly cast and track your ballot.

You can use the website to learn how to become a candidate and what some offices entail so you can match a candidate’s qualifications with the job requirements. There’s even a tutorial that helps you use social media to increase excitement about upcoming elections. So you can make sure your neighbors know when the next election is and what’s at stake.

Get more people involved in the political process, not fewer. That’s the American way.

It’s a pity that Black people in nearly 30 states are having to find a way around the myriad voter suppression and voter restriction efforts now being legislated for maximum deterrence during the midterm elections. But it’s nothing new. Anti-democratic white supremacists have long been a malignant minority determined to undermine American democracy by capturing and corrupting local and state government election apparatus.

A joint report by the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution and the States United Democracy Center sums up the threat this way: “[I]f democracy fails in America, it will not be because a majority of Americans is demanding a nondemocratic form of government. It will be because an organized, purposeful minority seizes strategic positions within the system and subverts the substance of democracy while retaining its shell — while the majority isn’t well organized, or doesn’t care enough, to resist.”

On the Maryland ballot, you don’t have to look long and hard to see what’s at stake and what would happen if a majority of decent, freedom-loving people didn’t care enough to resist.

At the top of the ballot, for governor, there’s the Democratic nominee — an African American Rhodes scholar, combat veteran and anti-poverty advocate who believes strongly that education is the key to the state’s democratic future.

His opponent is a Republican member of the House of Delegates who also happens to be a member of a group called Alliance Defending Freedom, which was described as an anti-LGBTQ organization in 2017 by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

I will have a say about which one of them leads my state, and there is no reason that casting my ballot should be anything but a pleasure.

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