Commentary: Honor our nation’s founding — by voting

As we celebrate the 239th anniversary of the founding of our nation on July 4th, its birth certificate being the Declaration of Independence, one of the best ways to honor that event, and the American and allied soldiers and sailors who fought in the War for Independence, is by being an informed and active voter.

Among the Founders’ chief indictments of the wrongs imposed on the American colonies by the British government was taxation without representation. The right to vote was very narrow in America from the adoption of the Constitution in 1788 until the end of the Civil War, being limited to white male property owners (with three-fifths of the number of slaves an individual owned counting among the population represented in the House of Representatives). Shortly after the Civil War, newly emancipated African Americans were “guaranteed” the right to vote by the 15th Amendment, ratified February 3, 1870, but it was broadly nullified in practice during the dismantling of Reconstruction, beginning in 1876, through the enactment of “Black Code” laws, followed by Jim Crow laws, mainly throughout the South. Among other insidious provisions, Jim Crow laws imposed poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures to disenfranchise blacks. The direct election of U.S. senators was provided by the 17th Amendment, ratified April 8, 1913, and women weren’t granted the right to vote until passage of the 19th Amendment, ratified Aug.t 12, 1920.

One hundred years after the Civil War, the Civil Rights Act of 1965 finally ended the burdens on voting imposed by the Jim Crow laws. Disgustingly, direct descendants of those 19th century measures to deny and suppress voting rights have appeared in  actions by state legislatures. The combined effect of the Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United vs. FEC, and McCutcheon vs. FEC, was to massively increase the influence of big money in elections, vastly diluting the ability of ordinary citizens, and volunteer groups, to influence election outcomes. Meanwhile, there has been a resurgence in efforts to limit the right to vote throughout America by state legislatures enacting voter suppression measures.  These unnecessary laws have curtailed early voting, caused stringent purging of voter registration records leading to errors, and imposed photo ID requirements, all under the guise of protecting ballot boxes from the phantom threat of voter fraud. These excessive requirements disproportionately burden the elderly, minorities, the poor, and college students.

The voter suppression campaign has been carried out by the Republican Party, reacting to President Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, with support from the American Legislative Exchange Council, and affiliated groups, funded in the main by fossil fuel empire barons, the Koch Brothers and their allies. On Sept. 25,  the Washington Post reported that, “Of the 34 states that have passed laws requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls, Virginia has among the strictest rules.”

According to Shenandoah County Registrar Lisa McDonald, as of June 26, 26,667, or 78 1/2 percent, of the county’s 33,960 residents 18 years old or older, were registered to vote. That’s a decent percentage of registered voters, but how about actually voting? In the 2011 and 2013 elections for Board of Supervisors members, only 37.9 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in contested districts. In the 2014 U.S. Senate election, only 41.1 percent of eligible Shenandoah County voters participated.Such a dismal turnout reflects a careless disregard for the precious right to vote.

To fully honor the right to vote, one of our core civil liberties, patriotic citizens should be informed and active voters, and work to undo and prevent voter suppression. With the upcoming election on Nov 3, voters in Virginia Senate District 26, which includes all of Shenandoah, Warren, Page, and Rappahannock counties, and part of Rockingham County, have a clear choice between the candidates on the issue of the right to vote. Virginia’s photo-ID voting requirement legislation [SB1256] was sponsored by District 26 incumbent Sen. Mark Obenshain. But that’s not all, in the 2015 session Sen. Obenshain also voted for [20-17 party-line tally] an expansion of the photo-ID requirement to include absentee voters [HB1318]. Fortunately, Gov. McAuliffe’s veto of this bill was upheld.

Obenshain’s opponent, April Moore, has stated that she is a strong proponent of voters’ rights and is for the removal of all unnecessary barriers to the ability to vote for all eligible citizens. So, if you will be 18 or older and haven’t done so, register to vote by Oct. 13, and all eligible voters — get informed about the candidates’ positions on issues important to you, and vote on Nov. 3. Doing so will help you have a more meaningful celebration on July 4, 2016, and beyond.

Dennis Atwood is a Maurertown resident.

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