A call for suffrage TTC

July 14, 1998|By A. Robert Kaufman

THOSE of us who organize in the interest of the dispossessed are burdened with the fact that they are just that. For the most part, they do not vote. Consequently, politicians can, more often than not, ignore their needs.

Many don't vote because they don't know of any electoral candidate who would truly represent their interests.

Many others don't vote because the government has disenfranchised them.

There are three categories of the disenfranchised that I am particularly concerned about: the young, felons and legal aliens. If the people of Baltimore choose, we could enfranchise them, at least for municipal elections, with the approval of the General Assembly, because Baltimore is governed by state election laws. Providing suffrage for these groups would result in more people participating in the democratic process, making them feel like they have a stake in the city's future.

The most outrageously unjust category of Baltimoreans who cannot vote are those labeled "felons." This prohibition stems from the racist South, where such things as poll taxes were introduced after Reconstruction to keep black people from voting.

In recent years, the number of felons has increased as scores of young people have been arrested for drug offenses.

Under state law, a person convicted of a single felony, who has successfully completed any prison time and probation, may register to vote again. But those found guilty of more than one felony are barred from ever voting again.

Once a defendant is found guilty in the courts and serves his sentence that should be the end of it. Society should not impose any additional punishment.

Theoretically, prisons are supposed to rehabilitate inmates so they can become responsible citizens.

The second disenfranchised category is legal aliens. Before World War I, aliens voted in local, state and national elections in 22 states and federal territories. Many even held public office. That all pretty much ended during World War I as Americans became increasingly suspicious of foreigners.

Baltimore has a growing body of legal immigrants, typically Hispanics, Asians and Russian Jews. They are our neighbors who work here, pay taxes and are subject to public policies. Many of them have fled their native countries for political or economic reasons. They appreciate the value of democratic elections.

L We must see to it that they can vote in municipal elections.

Thirdly, we should lower the voting age to 16. There is no magic age when it comes to the right to vote and to begin to play a responsible role in society.

On the federal level, a generation ago, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 solely because of so many 18- and 19-year-old youths were being killed in the Vietnam War.

In many societies (the American Iroquois for instance), boys and girls may take full part in voting and other political activities as soon as they reach sexual maturity.

Just think of the educational opportunities and the rise in morale of both students and teachers if students knew that they could help pick our city's leaders by age 16. Every relevant candidate would want to speak at every high school. The candidates' performances would be evaluated in civics class.

Younger voters would probably be among the most informed and sophisticated voters in the city.

Along with expanding the ranks of potential voters, why not make voting easier and more effective?

Baltimore residents should be able to vote at any polling place, not just ones close to their homes. A voter's identity and address may be verified by computer without the inconvenience and expense of prior registration.

Those who think the rules governing voting are sacrosanct should realize that such laws have evolved over the years. At one time only property-owning, white males could vote. It took a constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote.

All of these proposed changes are designed to give us a more representative democracy.

A. Robert Kaufman is an organizer of a community meeting to discuss these issues. It will be held at 7: 30 p.m. tomorrow at Union Baptist Church, 1219 Druid Hill Ave. For more details, call 410-728-8611.

! Pub Date: 7/14/98

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