The United States Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, held true then, as it does today, that ‘All men are created equal’ and that ‘they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these being Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.’ However, while the framers of this document – four representatives from the great State of Maryland** – were secure in the fact that one of the greatest rights afforded to man would be the right to vote – they also knew that the right to choose an elective government would only lie in the hands of a privileged few. Thus, the nation’s most cherished and revered symbol of liberty and freedom, and certainly Jefferson’s most enduring moment; has long been the most divisive and exalted argument of ‘justice for all’ in American history.
Seeing decades filled with all types of political suffrage, from the mid-1800’s fight for a “new democracy” waged by Thomas Dorr, a Harvard graduate and elected son of a wealthy merchant who led the revolutionary charge to ensure that the mass population of people were not denied voting rights based on race, gender and most of all wealth; to the early 1900’s fight of Alice Paul, a quiet and determined Quaker with a Ph.D., who helped lead a movement of women that eventually turned the tide of women suffrage which in 1919 saw a bill pass in the Senate, leading to the eventual 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – affording women the cherished right to vote. Also witnessing the fight for justice since the 1868 14th Amendment allowed blacks the right to vote, yet only on paper as many states implemented poll taxes, literacy tests and more during the era of Jim Crow which denied African Americans this ultimate right of passage.
We saw people such as Bob Moses and other members of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who for years in the early 1960’s got beaten, arrested, shot, stabbed, hung and more as they went door-to-door in the ‘Old South’ to engage blacks in the electoral process; while eventually seeing all that hard work, blood, sweat and tears come to fruition with the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson. These efforts were so powerful thatthe words of Ms. Unita Blackwell, a Mississippian who was inspired to register by Moses, summed it up best when she stated: “For black people in Mississippi, Freedom Summer was the beginning of a whole new era. People began to feel that they weren’t just helpless anymore.” Yet, still not all the way finished with ensuring that everyone was granted the same exact rights of freedom, known as voting rights; it took into July 1, 1971 before the 26th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was enacted and ratified, thereby giving 18-year olds the all powerful tool of voting. Upon his signature to this measure, President Richard Nixon stated that:
“As I meet with this group today, I sense that we can have confidence that America’s new voters, America’s young generation, will provide what America needs as we approach our 200th birthday, not just strength and not just wealth but the “Spirit of ‘76’ a spirit of moral courage, a spirit of high idealism in which we believe in the American dream, but in which we realize that the American dream can never be fulfilled until every American has an equal chance to fulfill it in his own life!”
However, four decades since and seemingly a lifetime later, Marylanders are still faced with voting rights suffrage, though nowhere near the same magnitude presented then. Granted we have problems that come to fruition every now and again; this state is one of the most progressive in terms of voter empowerment across the country – at least in comparison to the laws dictating who can vote in other state elections. For instance, in 2007 Maryland legislators finally got the nerve to pass a bill I had the pleasure of writing, naming and being a part of the process of passage entitled: ‘The Voter Registration Protection Act of 2007’. This common sense legislation allowed for those formerly incarcerated for Felony convictions to regain their voting rights once they completed their entire sentence – community service, restitution and any probation and parole. Though it saw plenty of opposition from Republicans and Democrats alike, passing by the slightest of margins in both chambers (Senate 28-19; House of Delegates 78-60); it brought us one step closer to full inclusion at the voting polls, despite race, gender, age, class or past conviction. However, this year’s election in Baltimore City, which saw the lowest turnout since the inception of the voting process here in Maryland’s only city; only solidified the notion that people who did not have to suffer through the carnage of the past, do not respect the rights afforded to us through these tough times!
Baltimore saw only 23% of a registered 324,000+ eligible voters come out throughout the City; while council districts such as the 10th, who have the city’s lowest number of registered voters and Democrats, saw only 15% of its entire electorate come out in September, or 18% of the Democratic electorate. We saw the 1st district, which has the highest amount of registered Republicans not even have a GOP nominee run and the 8th district, which has the city’s most number of registered voters and Democrats, only saw a total of 6,500+ come out to vote in the Democratic Primary in a district where the incumbent was convicted of a crime during her time in office, less than two years ago? Yet can we really expect a higher turnout in the General Election which usually sees a considerable decrease in voter participation – though it’s the only opportunity for third party voters to participate in the electoral process – yet most operate under the assumption that those elected in the Democratic Primaries are basically shoe-in victors in the November based election? Should we expect a high turnout of those ex-offenders – who gained approximately 10,000 more eligible voters based on the passage of the 2007 law – in this upcoming election when according to early data less than 8% of those formerly incarcerated have even registered, with only 3% coming out to vote recently in the Primary?
Despite the many groups attempting to register voters throughout the summer, the problem seemingly does not exist in the front-end of the process; as Baltimore sees a big base of registered voters existing especially in the age range of 25-44 who are the second largest registered base of voters, outside that of 45-65. Yet, despite almost 325,000+ registered voters throughout the City, Baltimore’s voter turnout – which is the only jurisdiction throughout the state that has their local elections separate of the statewide Gubernatorial Elections – seemingly lacks the candidate generated excitement and enthusiasm that we see throughout the country? Baltimore City seems to be one of, if not the lowest, major metropolitan city from across the country in terms of voter participation; however the response by our local leaders elected by this dismal base of voters was essentially, “Oh well”? How can we, as a people, allow for such atrocities and not be up in arms about it, especially based on the conditions Baltimoreans suffer daily from education to housing, property tax rates, dilapidated and vacant properties, while also being flimflammed on almost every important policy decision to date – at least in the past few years?
Case in point, the Mayor who admirably had to make tough decisions regarding budget cuts last year, and this year for that matter, facing a tremendous budget deficit; proposed cuts to many vital services such as education and public safety. Now while we saw her bluff her way out of most those cuts, she did end up cutting youth services and education funding by not increasing their dollars rather keeping it the same as last year’s funding level which basically is a cut in an inflated budgetary process year-by-year! However, the same police helicopter program she threatened to cut, or reduce substantially, never happened while she not only kept its funding, she increased the funding of this program to allow for the purchase of many more helicopters in the past two weeks? While the public safety budget has surpassed every major department in this City, in its supplemental budgeting alone; it seems as though the training for the operators of these machines, as well for on-duty officers, K-9 dogs and police mounted horses is more important than the employment and/or education of our youth? For while she increased the police departments hiring budget to add 300+ officers, the Mayor has continuously reduced the jobs given to Baltimore area youth by 4,000 positions in the past two years. Yet whether you agree with her decision in the process or not; these are the type of services we’re allowing without any say-so in the matter when we choose not to go out and vote for the person who would promise to put our children first!
Baltimore is one of the only remaining jurisdictions left in Maryland who with an antiquated City Charter, still doesn’t allow for eighteen, nineteen and twenty-year olds to mount their own political campaigns for local office. Yes, in Baltimore City, you can register to vote in order to support these officials who may not support your policy positions, program and those of your peers; you are old enough to go off and defend this country in war and possibly die defending the rights of freedom, justice and equality afforded to us throughout the same document mentioned earlier known as the Declaration of Independence – however you cannot formulate your own political campaign to present your case to the Baltimore voters as to why you deserve their vote for local office, until you turn the ripe age of 21? Even though we have wonderfully articulated and dedicated 18-year old elected officials in our sister jurisdiction Prince George’s County, by way of the 8th district rep on the Board of Education, Mr. Edward Burroughs; Baltimore still feels as though are youth are not deserving of a chance at winning the hearts, minds and votes of the mass electorate? Yet then we have the nerve to complain about their political apathy when we continuously and consistently lock them out of the very process we expect them to be involved with?
Well hopefully that historically idiotic policy will be eliminated in this year’s General Election, as IMPAC, the Independent Movement Political Action Committee, has introduced, lobbied and ensured the passage of CB11-0634, that was passed unanimously throughout the City Council chambers, which now goes to the voters as a ballot question for those dedicated few who actually choose to show up in this very important process – and make their voices heard! Announcing their education and motivation campaign today, known as the Lower the Age campaign, ‘VOTE Green for 18’; members of this group, along with local elected officials, youth group reps and civil rights leaders will pack the 4th floor of City Hall at 4:18P to announce the formation of such a group and campaign; which also aims to increase turnout during the 2011 General Election.
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