Black Voice News, News Report, Chris Levister
Emboldened by the unprecedented turnout that resulted in the nation’s first Black president increasing numbers of Black voters are taking to the mailbox instead of their local polling station.
Eighty-three year old South Carolina native Lillian E. Knight doesn’t mince words when it comes to preserving the historic ritual of casting a vote in the polling station.
To relegate the act of something people fought for “to a casual convenience or some sort of disposable history is shameful,” she insists.
Knight and other African Americans worry that the convenience of absentee or early voting could compromise the integrity of the process and weakened a unifying civic experience.
Election Day Knight who suffers from what she calls ‘old bones’ climbed into her daughter’s vehicle for the 5 minute trip to Arroyo Verde Elementary School in Highland.
“I cast my vote like I’ve done for 43 years - at the polling station.”
In the century following Reconstruction African Americans in the South faced overwhelming obstacles to voting.
Knight says despite the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which had enfranchised Black men and women, southern voter registration boards used poll taxes, literacy tests and other bureaucratic impediments to deny African Americans their legal rights.
“We risked harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals, physical violence and in some cases death when we tried to vote. To dismiss or trivialize that civic experience is just plain wrong,” she said.
President Lyndon B. Johnson made civil rights one of his administration’s top priorities, using his formidable political skills to pass the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, which outlawed poll taxes and literacy tests in 1964.
In the 2008 presidential election an unprecedented 2 million more Black voters turned out compared with 2004. The turnout nearly erased the historic gap between Black and white voters. In some states like Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio and South Caroline, turnout among Blacks surpassed 70 percent.
Thus some like Knight feel that the act of voter civic engagement must be preserved.
Tom File, a voting analyst with the Census Bureau, said Americans have created a system of many mini-election-days leading up to the main event.
Voters once gathered on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November to pick the nation's leaders. Election Day was a day of civic engagement when neighbors met at the polls and then cast their ballots.
In the past twenty-five years, however, America has undergone a revolution in voting unlike anything it has experienced in the first 200 years of its history according to census data.
Today nearly a quarter of Americans vote before Election Day either by absentee ballot or at early voting places. In 1980, only one in twenty voters voted before Election Day.
Knight says although the boom in absentee voting has made it more convenient for voters - and thereby might boost turnout - it also has an isolating effect.
"Blacks don’t take part in a lot of civic rituals as it is. Voting at your polling place is one of the few civic rituals millions of Americans engage in. I think it would be a mistake to take that experience away."
But absentee-voting advocates say the approach allows voters more time to think through their votes, which is particularly critical when a ballot includes a large number of choices.
Still, experts say absentee voting also raises the question of whether people who vote from home may be pressured by others in their household to vote a certain way - compared with voting at a polling place, which is a truly secret ballot.