Educators vow to fight voter suppression


by Amanda Litvinov

Sonia Smith, a high school literature teacher from Chesterfield County, Virginia, believes that becoming a voting rights activist was what she was meant to do. It’s in her blood.

“My great-grandmother, who stood all of 4’8”, helped black folks register to vote back in the late nineteen-teens and twenties when it was very dangerous,” said Smith during a break from a two-day voter activist training hosted by NEA and the NAACP in Washington, D.C., this weekend.

“She helped people of color pass the literacy test they had to take before the Voting Rights Act did away with that. She educated people about the poll tax and walked them through the steps that it took to register and often went with people to the registrar. She was completely hands on.”

When Smith received the invitation, along with 70 other African American educators from key battleground states across the country, to take part in the training that would help her educate and register voters, Smith remembered thinking, “holy cannoli, this is my calling. It’s almost like I feel my grandmother here with me.”

The Voting Rights Act may have done away with blatant discriminatory election practices from bygone eras, but in the wake of the 2008 presidential election, a new wave of laws cropped up across the country that will make it harder for certain groups to vote by requiring photo IDs that some eligible voter groups are far less likely to have or be able to acquire before November, shortening or eliminating early voting, and changing the rules for third-party voter registration efforts. NEA and the NAACP believe these voter suppression efforts aimed at people of color, the poor, students, and the elderly amount to a coordinated attack headed up by radical conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, which only recently disbanded its controversial Public Safety and Elections Task Force.

The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that the rights of 5 million eligible voters will be affected in the 2012 election.

NEA Secretary-Treasurer Becky Pringle

“We thought we were done when the Voting Rights Act passed in 1964, but we’re not done,” educator and NEA Secretary-Treasurer Becky Pringle said to the educators who had assembled in Washington, D.C. for the training. “Never in my lifetime did I think we’d have to fight for these rights again, but here we are. It’s our turn to step up.”

The training, based on an NAACP curriculum that has successfully registered 600,000 African American voters, covered everything from how to plan and successfully execute a neighborhood canvass to how to engage people in nonpartisan conversations about issues like public education to how to properly register voters.

“The only way we can turn the tide now is to get back to the basics,” said Roger C. Vann, NAACP’s chief operating officer when discussing the value of grassroots organizing. “You have to teach. You have to spread awareness that it is not enough to rest on our laurels from battles fought in the past. As we’ve seen over the past couple of decades, but certainly over the past few years, nothing is guaranteed.”

His message was not lost on Robert Gaines III, a special education paraprofessional from Farmington, Mich., just outside of Detroit, who is committed to doing all he can to help voters exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot. Gaines drove more than 10 hours each way to be part of the NEA/NAACP training. “As educators, we believe the children are the most important thing for this country, and that means our voices must be heard and we must get to the polls.”

He looks forward to taking the information and skills he gained back to his community where he hopes to team up with colleagues who share his commitment to getting out the vote for public education. “We can’t sit back, we can’t wait, we can’t say, well, it’s just one vote,” Gaines said. “We’re voting for the kids we teach on a daily basis.”

Asia Horton

“My family is engaged in politics, and I’ve long been involved in canvassing,” said Asia Horton, a fifth-grade special education teacher from Erie, Penn. “But now I feel well-equipped to lead an effort—I know how to plan it and how to attack it.”

Horton has no problem connecting the big issues to local realities. “Erie has a devastatingly high number of children living in poverty,” she says. The most recent figure from the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates program of the U.S. census says 24 percent of Erie County children live in poverty, and the percentage in Erie City is even higher. The school where Horton taught for the past four years, Burton Elementary, was closed along with three other area schools due to the state’s current education funding crisis.

“It’s imperative that we get out and vote so that future students are not dealing with the same inequity in education, with some schools receiving better funding than others,” Horton said. “We need to have people in office who want to find ways to make sure that everyone has a fair shot beginning with a high quality education.”

A. Brahin Tabb

A. Brahin Tabb, an elementary school librarian from Pennsylvania’s Lower Marion School District said he was returning home optimistic that educators taking the lead in voter education and registration can make a difference in 2012 and beyond.

“When I was coming to D.C., I didn’t realize how important I would be in the upcoming election,” said Tabb. “But now I realize how important my voice is and that I can have a real impact in my neck of the woods. To know that 1 of every 100 Americans is an NEA member makes it a little less daunting to try to combat voter suppression. We have an amazing reach if we all get active.”

Reader Comments

  1. Erik and James have some valid points that totally lack any real support or backing. Our National history is of mostly European background but today has shifted to Middle Eastern, Asian (China, India and many others) and Latino (South Americans). Now that we have many people of different ethnic origins and backgrounds in our mix it becomes threatening to many of European ancestry. They look different, speak with an accent, eat different foods, have different religions–aaaahhh! they are not “us”. So we set about to make sure they do not upset our European apple carts. Buy our goods with their money but you cannot get involved in “our” political process. You just might change it. So attempts to limit their ability cast a vote in any election is the agenda of “preventing voter fraud.” Show us that voter fraud exists on any scale that requires such limiting measures. As FDR stated, “You can lie to all the people part of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot lie to all the people all the time.” Voters need to take a good look at all the political advertising to discern the distortions and outright lies being hammered at us to make us believe something that just is not there in real life. Voter registration limits are just the tip of the iceberg. And oh yes, people do work outside of their real job to care about each other and make this a better country to live in. They do not go home, grab a beer and watch TV all evening.

  2. I am so glad I retired and no longer have to deal with NEA drivel. Look at the words used in the headline of this article. “Voter suppression” is the leftist I-need-more-illegal-aliens-to-prop-up-my-party code instead of what the truth is. (I’m sorry, I should have substituted “undocumented workers” for “illegal aliens” so that I could be in step with leftist propaganda instead of telling the truth.) What most Americans want is a fair and legal election. The best way for this to be accomplished is to ensure that we have registered legal citizens voting, as many as we possibly can. Therefore, I encourage the far left wing (and any part of the political spectrum) to help get voters registered, and perhaps especially those who they believe are, according to the article, less likely to be registered – “people of color, the poor, students, and the elderly” – and anyone else they can find who has not registered instead of making this into an attempt to demonize those who are trying to keep the election legal also known as “radical conservative groups” in the above article.

  3. I used to live in Connecticut. I voted in the town hall of the small town I lived in. Everyone knew everyone. Nevertheless, I was required to announce my name in a full, loud voice when I presented myself to the poll watchers. Then came a year when I was asked for my driver’s license, which, of course, included my picture. No explanation. No difficulty. Here’s what I don’t remember: the Democrat party having a great hissy fit about how this was going to suppress the vote. I wonder at all if the absence of principle among Connecticut activists that year in Connecticut had anything to do with Connecticut’s being a Red state? And by the way, all the teachers in the article who have discovered their raison d’etre as voting rights activists – are they no longer teaching? Or are they giving their best efforts to contributing to making fraudulent voting just a bit easier?

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