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Yes on Prop D! Voting rights for all parents

October 6, 2010

by Chris Finn

Mack Lyons worked with the legendary Cesar Chavez in the early days of of the United Farm Workers. He said that when he was picking grapes, he would wonder “why in the hell do people have to work this hard” and how can I “make their lives a little bit easier, a little bit better”? Chavez described Lyons this way: “He was aggressive, worked hard, and got caught on fire. The Blacks were a very small percentage of workers at Arvin, but the Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and whites responded to him so well that they elected him their leader.”
Despite claims that the United States represents a model of democracy, more than 20 million U.S. adult residents are currently denied the main tool of any democratic society – the right to vote. For those familiar with voting rights in this country, it’s no surprise the great majority of these are people of color.

This denial of the right to vote happens in two ways. An estimated 5 million citizens lost the right to vote in states that deny the vote for a prior felony conviction. At least another 16 million residents are denied the right to vote based on immigration status. No other industrial democracy in the world takes away the right to vote for these reasons to the degree the U.S. does. Most democratic countries, and some U.S. states, allow immigrant residents to vote. And most democratic countries, and some U.S. states, maintain the right to vote for citizens in the criminal justice system.

In San Francisco, the number of those affected is more than 40,000. Prop D takes a big step toward giving back some of those voting rights.

Approximately 30 percent of all children in the San Francisco school system have a parent who can’t vote due to immigration status. Prop D would guarantee those parents the right to vote in school board elections and is supported by a growing number or organizations and community members. Although non-citizen voting is legal and allowed by the U.S. Constitution and was common for most of this country’s history, only a few states in recent history have allowed non-citizens to vote.

Cities including New York, Chicago and others that granted the right to vote in school board elections not only empowered individual parents but saw improved school facilities and student performance. This would especially serve communities with large immigrant populations, such as District 10, where school facilities are particularly lacking.

A look at the history of voting rights in the U.S. shows a shared history between immigrant voting rights and the struggle for Blacks, women and youth to get the right to vote. One difference is that noncitizens started out with the right to vote and had the right to vote for more than half this country’s history – as long as they were white male property owners.

As urban industrialism grew, however, people could be wealthy and powerful without necessarily controlling large amounts of land and agriculture. States had to drop the property-ownership requirement for them to vote and to extend the right to Revolutionary War veterans and militiamen. The abolishment of the property-ownership criteria made race and gender more important in determining voter eligibility, leading to literacy tests, poll taxes and other restrictions.

After the amendments outlawing slavery and giving voting rights to Black men, criminal disenfranchisement laws served another method of keeping Black voter turnout down. Elizabeth Hull cites many examples in “The Disenfranchisement of Ex-Felons” of some states creating harsher penalties for crimes committed by Blacks. Thirteen states take away the right to vote even after completion of sentence, parole or probation and individuals have supposedly paid their debt to society. This especially impacts African American males, with 13 percent of the African American population permanently barred from voting. Hispanics are also disproportionately affected.

Similarly, as the demographics of the immigrant population shifted from being primarily White Anglo-Saxon Protestant to more Eastern or Southern European and Catholic, sentiment toward non-citizens also shifted. Political rhetoric blamed immigrants for the effects of economic downturn and kicked off a period of anti-immigrant legislation that lasted through the 1920s, headed by the Naturalization Act of 1870, which limited citizenship to “white persons and persons of African descent.” The states gradually removed the eligibility of non-citizens to vote, with the last state ending the practice in 1926.

Eighteen-year-olds won the right to vote during the Vietnam War after massive protests that youth could be drafted, serve in the military and die for this country at 18 years old but were not deemed responsible enough to vote until 21. There is no longer a draft, but many non-citizens join the military, since their lack of political representation often leaves them economically marginalized and the military offers an accelerated citizenship process as a recruitment device. The Defense Manpower Data Center estimates there are 35,000 non-citizens on active duty, with another 12,000 serving in the Guard and reserves, with some dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some opponents argue that would-be voters should just become citizens. That’s easy to say, but the path to citizenship is not easy and can take 10 years or more. More importantly, the argument misses the fundamental point: Tax-paying constituents deserve democratic representation. The right to vote – or “No taxation without representation!” – was supposedly the founding principle of the United States and the motive behind the American Revolution. Those who live here, work here, own homes, pay taxes, with some in the military fighting and dying, should have the right to vote.

Voting rights are more about political power than citizenship. Many citizens have been denied the right to vote from the beginning of this country’s history, while non-citizens enjoyed the right. Property-less white males, women, African Americans, persons with felony convictions, those subjected to poll taxes or other hurdles and even differently-abled citizens all suffered disenfranchisement. It was only recently that the ADA mandated accessibility to polls for differently-abled citizens.

Some view the growing immigrant population as a threat and have been working to restrict their political strength, along with other groups, through intimidation, suppression and/or co-optation. School curriculum changes in Texas and Arizona attempt to whitewash history, and laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 enact racial targeting of Latinos.

When the Voting Rights Act, designed to reduce discrimination in state voting laws, was up for renewal recently, Congress delayed renewal partly due to opposition to the Act’s requirement that states provide materials in other languages where necessary.

Fortunately, there are steps forward on both voting rights fronts. Support is growing in many states for restoration of felon voting rights. And several other cities are currently promoting ballot proposals such as Prop D. Advance voting rights in San Francisco! Vote Yes on Prop D!

Chris Finn can be reached at cfinn@berkeley.edu.

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