Obama, Selma, and the right to vote

Fifty years after bloody fight for right to vote, why is the president urging people to vote and why don’t they listen?

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Malia Obama, Sasha Obama, Marian Robinson, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton
President Obama crossed the bridge holding the hand of Congressman John Lewis [AP]

Stuck in Alabama. That sounds like the title to a country album but in my case that’s what I was after covering the anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma. While waiting for my long-delayed flight, I had time to reflect on the weekend’s events and what they say about the state of the US political system today.

The most iconic picture from the 50-year anniversary will of course be President Barack Obama crossing the bridge holding the hand of Congressman John Lewis. It is remarkable symbolism. The first African American President walked the span alongside the man who led the march in 1965.

Think about it for just a minute. Representative Lewis led the march and was badly beaten. He was fighting for the right to vote. He won, and in large part because on that day the voting rights act was passed. African Americans could vote and they would eventually help elect the first African American president. And there they were, retracing the steps of history – now the ultimate figures of authority.

So what was it like to witness the event? I have to be honest, it was more of a “made for TV” moment than a real life one. There was a riser full of photographers and journalists stacked up on the back of a truck in order to capture the moment. From my vantage point, I saw only the back of a large crowd walking. But I did take a moment to think about what I was, sort of, witnessing.

Lazy electorate?

Obama gave a passionate speech. The part that stands out for me is the call he made for people to vote. And I realised he’s been making that argument more often these days. His basic premise, “if people sacrificed so much to get that right, how can you not vote yourself?” That got me thinking about the why.


Why is the president urging people to vote now and why don’t people actually listen? There are all kinds of explanations for the countries dismal voting rate. Some believe the electorate is lazy or not tuned in enough to know who to vote for. There are some who probably fit that description. That still doesn’t account for the truly sizeable group that stays home.

I think a more likely explanation is that people don’t think there vote is going to count, or they just don’t think there is anyone good to vote for.

I understand their frustration. The federal government seems broken to most people. It doesn’t really seem to matter who you put in charge of what, they can’t agree on anything. If you put just one party in power, they still have trouble accomplishing much. The problem is that the system is rigged – the two parties control who gets on the ballot and they don’t have an incentive to allow competitors into their game.

Do votes matter?

I can also understand why people question whether their vote will matter. You might be saying right now, look at Florida and the Bush/Gore election in 2000. The presidency came down to hundreds of votes. In that case every vote did matter, until the Supreme Court said it didn’t.

The problem is most people don’t live in Florida or the other few “swing” states. For example if you are a Republican living in Maryland, chances are you can vote but your state is still going to elect a Democratic senator. If you are voting for Congress, it’s likely your district has been drawn in a way that the incumbent is likely to get reelected even if you vote against him or her.

There’s another reason that incumbents tend to get reelected and that is money. They can raise a lot of it and campaigning costs more and more every year. It’s easier for politicians to get the millions they need now because the Supreme Court has basically said people can give huge amounts of money to candidates.

If you were a politician would you do hundreds of events to try and get small donations from thousands of people or would you have a few private dinners and schmooze up the super rich? I think when politicians say they can take huge amounts of cash from individuals and remain objective, they are either fooling themselves or believe that voters are quite stupid. Of course, the person who gives massive amounts of money gets their phone calls answered, their issues addressed.

So why is the president pushing the issue? I can’t help but think he’s trying to get the country “fired up”. There was a clear potent enthusiasm over his election. That is gone.

That brings me back to the lesson of Selma. I was doing a lot of research to get ready and one image sticks out in my mind. It’s a picture of an African American man holding a sign saying “one man – one vote”. The black and white image sent the message perfectly – a vote was a powerful thing. It meant being empowered, being able to change your government. I’m not sure it means that now, 50 years later.

Source: Al Jazeera