(WOMENSENEWS)–On Sept. 23 a little-known holiday was celebrated by community and nonprofit organizations that care deeply about the future of our democracy. National Voter Registration Day was marked by a few press conferences and a lot of voter outreach.
These observances will never reach the level of July 4th, but may well have more impact on the lives of ordinary working women. Too many women are more likely to know where the fireworks are held in July than how or when to cast a vote in November. And our democracy depends far more on this latter information.
Think, for example, of the low-wage mom who must figure out how to get to her polling location while depending on public transportation and a fragile system of child-care arrangements.
Recent rollbacks in early voting days and locations make her juggling act just that much harder. This is even more true for women returning from prison, who are among those most directly impacted by minimum wage rates, paid sick days, cuts in unemployment insurance and other safety net programs. If these women aren’t registered, their votes and voices are the least likely to be heard.
Over the past two years, more than 30 states have introduced or passed legislation that limits access to the polls: ending same-day voter registration, shortening early voting opportunities, requiring specific forms of voter ID and proof of citizenship to register to vote, and making it harder for volunteer organizations such as the League of Women Voters to register voters.
All of the Above in Georgia
Georgia, my home state, has enacted or continued all of the above. Recently here, State Sen. Fran Millar objected to efforts to open up early voting on a Sunday at a mall in an area with many African American residents. His reason: he would "prefer more educated voters than a greater increase in the number of voters.”
I have learned the importance of voter registration the hard way, in trips to the state Capitol where legislators were too quick to dismiss our members –often low-income constituents — who spoke about increasing the minimum wage and expanding family medical leave.
For years I was confused by this treatment, until the day a seasoned lobbyist took me aside to explain this mystery. "Elected officials know that poor people don’t vote,” he told me. Suddenly it was clear why we have so much partisan bickering, so little measured discussion and so many restrictions on voting.
Legislators know they will not be held accountable by all voters in their districts.
Winn, who spent time in prison as a convicted felon, led a campaign that succeeded in getting Fulton County, Ga., to remove from job applications the check box that requires applicants to disclose a criminal record. Being registered to vote was key to her victory. "As I met with each commissioner,” she told me, "I could say, ‘I am a registered voter and formerly incarcerated. This legislation will benefit people like me–and the community as a whole.’ Without that ‘I am a registered voter’ statement, elected officials have much less reason to listen.”
Every Election Counts
Once women are registered to vote it’s also important that we vote at every chance we have, not just in the big elections. After all, it’s in the lower-turnout races when each vote matters more.
Seventy-eight percent of black women in Georgia voted in 2008 and in 2012, according to the Georgia secretary of state. However in non-presidential elections, those numbers take a dive–to 55 percent in 2010. For single women of all races, the numbers are even more dramatic: 57 percent participation in 2008 and just 31 percent in 2010.
Women’s voices matter both as voters and as candidates. This year’s most closely watched U.S. Senate races involve female candidates.
Such races, including those in Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Louisiana, matter because 50 percent of the population and more than 50 percent of all voters in every election since 1980 are still represented by just 20 percent of senators.
Electing more women to the Senate – and every other legislative body — makes a real difference in the kind of process we have, the tone of the discussion and the decisions made, even though women are not monolithic and may have different opinions on a variety of issues.
For example, 16 female senators – Democrats and Republicans – have written a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stating, "As we mark the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, we call on the NFL to institute a real zero-tolerance policy for domestic violence.”
National Voter Registration Day will never make the top 10 national holidays. But the good news is this holiday can be honored, not just once a year, but most any day of the year.
We managed to take the bald eagle – that symbol of American democracy – off the endangered species list. Now maybe we can do the same for our elections process.
Cindia Cameron, a Public Voices Fellow at the OpEd Project, is 9 to 5 organizing director and co-chair of the Georgia Job/Family Collaborative.
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