Can you vote? This question, and another

This is a picture of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who worked for more than 50 years, with great and stubborn dignity and a powerful intellect, for civil rights – most of all, for women’s right to vote.

She was born in 1806, only 30 years after the Declaration of Independence. She never lived to cast a vote. When she died, in 1902, she had been working for female suffrage for more than 50 years.

Voting is one of the great currents of American history.  It took many years – indeed, most of the time the United States has been a country – to ensure that the vote could not be forbidden to American citizens on the basis of their sex or their race.  These were great victories for humanity – part of the reason the United States is the world’s great hope. I remember my parents, who were immigrants, proudly going to the polls.  They never missed one election, even the most miserable primaries, ever.  Where they came from, the right to vote was not protected, nor was the secret ballot.  They cherished their voting rights.  They believed that voting was the most important right, and that all other rights emerge from it.

I remember them reminding me, often, that in many countries, people risk their lives to cast a vote. It amazed them that in America, people would skip voting if it rained. Voting rights, to them, were human rights.

There is a disturbing flip side to the outcome of the great American struggles to win the vote.   We have answered the great questions – who would have the right to vote, who would be denied it – in a wrongheaded way:  there is no federal right to vote. The Constitution says what cannot be done: it prohibits certain forms of voting discrimination, and the Voting Rights Acts prohibit others, but that’s it.  The Constitution never says “Yes, you, American citizen, you have the inalienable right to vote.” Thus, every state sets its own policy.  That’s why there is such a messy checkerboard of voting practices from state to state.  Each state can do what it wants.

And in this ugly era, what some states are trying to do is cut back on who can vote. Deny the right to vote.

Which brings me to my questions to you:

Are you registered to vote?

Are you sure?

Even if you have voted in previous elections, even if you have lived in the same place for years, it’s a good idea to check.  This site lets you do that.  It covers most US jurisdictions and also lets you know what you need to do if you are not yet registered – what ID to bring, what your state says about early voting and absentee voting.

It’s really useful.  This site is how I found out – surprise! – that our polling place had changed.  Apparently, some people are finding out – way worse surprise! – that their registration has somehow evaporated.

Take a second.  Go look now.

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