The week before the 2004 election, I went to Town Hall to take advantage of the right we now have in Wisconsin to absentee vote early, in person. It was quick and easy. There were three voting booths with a total population of about 6000. Every other town, village, and city hall in this suburban county adjoining Milwaukee provided early voting this year. That’s about 15 different early voting locations to serve a total population in this one county of 85,000.
No booths were in use when I entered, and none were in use as I left. There was no waiting for early voting in the suburbs surrounding the city. In the past I’ve noticed that on Election Day there are certain times when there is a line to vote here in town. But there’s never more than a handful in line, never longer than a couple minutes wait, and there is always plenty of room inside, out of the weather. But reducing those waiting minutes to zero is even better. There is no reason that exercising our democratic right and responsibility to vote should be difficult or inconvenient or waste our precious time.
On the same day, a young working mother who had never voted before went to Milwaukee City Hall to take advantage of that same right to vote early. She did so because there would likely be long lines at her polling place on election day, and her pay would get docked at her minimum wage job if she was able to, and took time off to vote. Taking care of the kids, as well as her job, would mean she’d likely get to the polls, if at all, when the lines ran out the door and down the block. For her, voting early meant shorter lines, and voting would not have to be squeezed into her Tuesday schedule. There was only one voting location for the entire city, containing a half dozen voting booths to serve a population of over a half million.
All booths were in use when this woman entered, and all were in use as she left. There was plenty of waiting in line for this Milwaukee mother. On the same day that I conveniently voted early with no wait, she waited in line over two hours. And then she left without voting because there was still a line ahead of her, and she had to leave to get to work on time. She said she was going to try again another day.
I took part in volunteer pre-election canvassing, and I spoke with many Milwaukee voters who assured me, “Oh, don’t worry about me, I’m going to vote. I don’t care how long it takes, or what it takes. They’re not going to keep me from voting.” That attitude in Milwaukee of determination to overcome adversity, while admirable, is not at all necessary to vote successfully in surrounding affluent suburbs.
There are other conditions that suppress the vote besides the interminably long lines at polling places in poor and working class communities in our nation’s cities. An important example is the federal voting rights violations that occurred in Florida in 2000 when officials at the highest level of state government purged many thousands of voters from the registration rolls, and illegally, and without justification, prevented them from voting. Large numbers of other voters were illegally prevented from voting when police barred the doors and turned people away who were already waiting in line when the polls were scheduled to close. Obviously, these were far more egregious injustices than the highly publicized ‘hanging chads’ problem. These blatantly illegal official denials of the voting rights of many thousands of fully legitimate minority citizens laid the groundwork for the startling 5-4 Supreme Court selection of the candidate who came in second in the popular vote in 2000 to be our President.
That Supreme Court decision four years ago to deny Florida’s right under the U.S. Constitution to manage its own election and recount was a confounding reversal of strict constructionist principles by the five most avowedly ‘conservative’ justices on the Court. That decision was hung on the nail of the ‘Equal Protection’ clause, with the majority asserting that continuing the vote recount would somehow violate the equal protection of the rights of some Florida citizens.
Now a question must be persistently asked. Doesn’t it violate the ‘Equal Protection’ clause, as well as basic American core values of fair play, when a person in an affluent so-called conservative Republican community can vote, with little to no waiting in lines, and free of any organized vote suppression techniques, while that working mother in the city that I told you about at the beginning of this column, cannot?
November 4, 2004