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Voting: A key step to full equality

Melvin B. Miller
Voting: A key step to full equality
“These demonstrations are cool, but the real show of power is at the ballot box on Election Day.” (Photo: Dan Drew)

For those committed to democracy, the most inspiring scene in the last 20 years was the first post-apartheid election in South Africa in April, 1994. Long lines of blacks, who had been subjugated all their lives, wended their way slowly to the polling places. By contrast, the recent midterm election in America indicates that some citizens have lost confidence in the importance of the electoral system.

With only 36.3 percent of registered voters going to the polls this year, that is the lowest turnout of a U.S. midterm election since 1942. According to the United States Election Project of the University of Florida, only 33.9 percent voted 72 years ago. Undoubtedly there will be studies to determine the cause of this current apathy. Until then there will be numerous theories about what happened.

Past experience indicates that a strong belief that one’s vote does not matter is the greatest deterrent to voting. That attitude can develop when polls indicate the result of the election is in the bag. Even more damaging to the democratic system is the belief that government is so dysfunctional that there will be no change no matter who wins. At this time the public has an extremely low opinion of the U.S. Congress.

With huge sums of money being spent on political campaigns, there is a developing belief that election results are bought and sold. This has been a concern since the U.S. Supreme Court opened the flood gates of corporate and union spending in the 2010 Citizens United decision. Also, outside funds from super PACs can make a big difference in a campaign, but the lopsided victory of Maura Healey over Warren Tolman in the Massachusetts primary race for attorney general indicates that money is not always everything.

While all of those issues are certainly important, there should be one primary concern for African American voters. How does involvement in the electoral process improve the status and power of the group? It’s not necessary to have a degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to understand this, just do the math. What would the impact be if 90 percent of registered black voters showed up for an election?

In the presidential election on November 2012, the black turnout was higher than any other racial or ethnic group. This alone makes the black vote too significant to ignore. Although blacks are only 12.5 percent of the population, their preference for the Democratic Party makes them a formidable political bloc.

Unfortunately, only 35 percent of black voters in Boston went to the polls on Nov. 4. This is lower than the national average. One reason, according to informal inquiries, is that there was little interest in Martha Coakley, the Democrat candidate for governor. There are several lessons to be learned from this experience. Early party support for a candidate who is not attractive to minorities will cause the loss of an important bloc; and blacks should go to the polls for every election and just blank the unappealing candidates.

The events of Ferguson, Mo. should demonstrate for everyone the consequences of not voting. Minorities should never concede the power of the ballot box to their antagonists. While it is unreasonable to insist that barefoot people must lift themselves up by their own bootstraps, it is nonetheless expected that people must assert the power available to them from voting in the democratic system.

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