Commentary

09.25.17

Going Beyond the Historic Right to Vote

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National Voter Registration Day, celebrated on Tuesday, September 26, is a national holiday that focuses on the importance of voter registration. Organizations and community groups across the country will come together to hold public events, educational workshops, and registration drives. The task before them, however, might be larger than expected due to the rising amounts of voter apathy and voter fatigue in the U.S.

Every year it becomes a little harder convincing Americans why they should register and vote. At times, voters are encouraged to participate solely because women and minority groups fought so stringently to make voting more inclusive. Other times, “get out the vote” efforts spur voters to cast a ballot when it appears an election will be extremely close. However, neither messaging around the historic fight for voting rights, nor the urgency of an election, has motivated voters to get to the polls, at least not in the numbers you’d expect based upon the percentage of eligible and registered voters in the U.S. The history of voting rights may seem too daunting to understand, or the focus on federal elections may take attention away from local races, but neither of these reasons should dissuade voters from looking at how they can impact change through the ballot box.

Voters must understand how their vote connects with issues impacting their community. Issues which have often been disassociated with respect to the ballot.

In Ohio, issues that have become more visible are the opiate epidemic and our ballooning prison population. Communities have become more concerned about the number of people overdosing or being incarcerated because people often commit crimes to sustain their addictions. Both issues have received heightened attention because they are no longer viewed as solely a “minority problem,” they affect white communities at alarming rates as well. Even though the opiate crisis is receiving attention from the media and the public, both statewide and nationally, our elected officials have struggled to develop effective public policies. Voters feel disheartened about affecting positive change in these areas, but one proactive thing they could do, is elect officials who will institute drug reform policies and introduce legislation that shifts the issue from criminal justice to public health

Voters have the ability to both elect officials that will institute viable reforms and hold them accountable when they fail to heed their political promises. This includes electing sheriffs, prosecutors, attorney generals, judges and state legislators who will commit to upholding policies that reflect the needs of the community. We’ve had enough knee-jerk ordinances or statutes that offer no viable pathway for individuals struggling to stay sober, or who have been convicted harshly and received a mandatory minimum sentence. After all, 95 percent of individuals who are currently incarcerated are being held in state and local institutions, with the remainder serving time in federal prison. With such an overwhelming number of people under local control, that increases opportunities for voters to advocate for real policy changes on the local level.

 We, the voting public, can directly impact criminal justice reform and drug decriminalization, through casting a ballot. Let’s not take this opportunity for granted.

Many sheriffs, prosecutors and judges are elected by voters. Sheriffs are the chief law enforcers of their counties, they maintain control over county jail facilities, and have the ability to instruct state representatives about the type of people entering into jail and for what reasons. Prosecutors in turn have the option of not overcharging defendants or negotiating plea deals that require defendants to serve needless time in prison. Additionally, judges have the discretion, along with prosecutors, to determine who is eligible for drug courts, counseling and treatment. It is critical that voter registrants explain to weary voters that electing politicians who will act in good faith can have a positive effect on their community.

On this National Voter Registration Day, voters have an opportunity to choose policymakers who will develop initiatives to address their community concerns. Voters also have power beyond their ballot to influence policy by meeting with their elected officials, speaking in public forums, drafting legislation and organizing their neighbors. Even without a presidential election on the horizon change can happen. Please visit www.acluohio.org/votecenter to see how you can register to vote.

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