I didn’t vote on Super Tuesday. It wasn’t out of laziness, apathy, or protest, but simply first-time voter inexperience. Yet while voters from twelve states flocked (or rather, trickled) to the polls for the Super Tuesday primaries, thousands are disenfranchised every time they try to vote by anti-democratic efforts aimed at excluding them from our political process.
I’d always thought voter registration was only a problem for underprivileged districts, suppressed by whatever local establishment had the most to gain by minimizing turnout. I, on the other hand, had it made: I would be voting in Cambridge, raised on 19 years of NPR or BBC, and fresh from a summer internship in the Senate. I’d watched every Presidential debate and my most-played iTunes clip was a dubstep remix of Trump saying “China.” How could I possibly mess this up?
And yet at the polling station in the Quincy courtyard 15 minutes before class on Super Tuesday, what was supposed to be my first vote as an adult American became a lesson in personal ineptitude and the ridiculously baroque nature of our system.
After one of the women who had taken a day off work to volunteer at the polls couldn’t find my name on a list of about twenty registered students from Leverett (why so few?!), she asked for my ID—a Massachusetts driver’s license—and went to “phone the election.” She returned a moment later: “You’re registered at your home address. You can’t vote here.”
I asked if I could do a same-day switch. Not possible. Get an absentee ballot? Too late. She gave me a form to change districts in time for the general. I briefly considered catching the 6:15pm ferry to Martha’s Vineyard before the polls closed at 8pm.
“You knew this,” said my Mum on the phone as I rushed to class. But I didn’t. Somehow, a short lifetime of political engagement had left me with the assumption that absentee ballots were only for people from outside the state. And when I checked the online registration system I’d used a few weeks earlier, nowhere on the application or confirmation had it instructed me.
I expect that much of my confusion—beyond what can be attributed to mere stupidity—arose from my Australian childhood. Australia has mandatory voting and Election Day is always on a weekend or national holiday, so that most people don’t have to take time off work to participate in democracy. I remember a Saturday on a beach just north of Sydney when Mum dragged herself off her towel to vote at a booth on the edge of the sand, surrounded by citizens emerging fresh from the surf to fulfill a civic duty. It would have been harder to find a bathroom than a polling place: even the habitually tuned out tune in, for a few moments. And they get counted. As a result, participation in Australian elections tops 95 percent. In the United States, only half of eligible voters make it to the polls.
In many American districts, voting isn’t made difficult so much by personal error as by intentional obfuscation, often stemming from racial bias. American voting has a long and painful history that began before Jim Crow laws that weren’t struck down until 1965 and continues today with voter suppression tactics that disenfranchise swathes of the population for political gain.
These tactics take many forms. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Kansas for illegally requiring tens of thousands of citizens to provide additional documentation of citizenship when registering to vote. Similar cases have been brought in Georgia and Alabama, the source of the 2013 Supreme Court decision that eliminated many of the hard-won protections of the Voting Rights Act. These efforts, often in response to virtually nonexistent voter fraud, disproportionately target minorities and contribute to socioeconomic inequality. While there are many potential threats to democracy from big money in politics to NSA surveillance, flaws in voter registration and difficulty getting to a polling place on a workday are the most direct way in which our country fails to live up to its egalitarian principles.
Am I a fool for not knowing that I needed an absentee ballot? Yes. Is my situation better than millions of Americans whose votes are intentionally prevented? Of course. But should voting ever be any more difficult than absolutely necessary for any American? No. Perhaps even more important than Citizens United or iPhone privacy is a system that makes voting as easy as possible for as many people as possible, regardless of race or district. In the meantime, I’ll be changing my address.
Nathaniel Brooks Horwitz '18, an inactive Crimson editorial writer, is a molecular and cellular biology and philosophy joint-concentrator living in Leverett House.
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In First, Undergrads Register to Vote During Check-InNearly 1,400 undergraduates registered to vote or requested absentee ballots as part of the College's mandatory check-in.
A Nudge in the Right DirectionThe process of registering to vote can be complicated and daunting, especially for students, many of whom don’t vote in Massachusetts and may also be first-time voters.
Students Register to Vote AbsenteeMany College students from outside Massachusetts are taking advantage of absentee ballots to participate in their home state’s local politics.
The Cost of a VoteBut cost of a vote is bigger than just the numbers. There is inherent value in voting, and a moral price we pay when we do not.