Yesterday my husband and I voted. Perhaps fittingly we had
gone to cast our early vote at the Marks Street Senior Center, a beautiful century
old Mediterranean structure right downtown that had once been a school, the perfect place for a retired fourth generation educator to vote.
The line was not too long, even with social distancing being observed. We were admitted into the voting site within 20 minutes and out 10 minutes later. It was a pleasant day in Central Florida to stand in line outside in the low 80s and not too much direct sunshine under the sheltering oak trees there.
As we stood in line, those who had completed their voting ahead of us were streaming out the side door of the Center, most bearing their “I VOTED” stickers to remind their fellow citizens to do the same. One of the voters was a young man wearing a chest harness to which his baby was securely strapped.
Suddenly a host of memories from my 67 years on this planet, most of them spent in this state, came flooding back.
“Pull that lever, Son…”
When I had just turned seven, my Father called me into the living room one afternoon and had me plop down in front of our black and white television with its snowy images coming out of a station 50 miles away in Tampa. “This is history, son,” he said.
I watched as two men in suits standing behind podiums took
turns answering questions from a third man sitting at a table in front of them.
I wasn’t sure what I was watching but I remember distinctly feeling a strong
sense of attraction to one of the men as well as a strong sense that the other
man was not a very good person.
As it turns out, I was watching the first presidential debates in U.S. history between Democrat John Kennedy, the winning candidate that I was instinctively drawn to, and Republican Richard Nixon whose depravity would eventually be revealed in a scandal that would drive him from the White House.
Even as a child, my intuition was on target.
Days later my Dad would take me by the hand as we walked down to the Women’s Club in downtown Bushnell and we would stand in line just as this father and his child had done yesterday here in Orlando. The poll worker would check the list of registered voters, my Dad would be asked to sign the registry next to his name (no ID was required in those days) and very quickly we would be ushered over to a voting booth.
I remember it being a bit claustrophobic, a response which intensified when my Father pulled a big lever at the bottom of the board in front of us that closed curtains behind us to provide for a secret balloting. Just above my eye level was the ballot with smaller levers by each name. Daddy picked me up and said, “Son, pull that lever,” and so I reached out and pulled the one he had told me to pull.
Thus from my earliest childhood, I have been a voter. I would only discover years later that I had involuntarily voted for Richard Nixon, the man who struck me as a crook on that snowy television screen that afternoon. And within three years, the man I had intuitively admired in that debate would be dead from an assassin’s bullet along with the dreams of many of us young Americans waiting our turn to serve Kennedy's New Frontier.
Old Enough to Die, Old Enough to Vote
In 1972, the 26th Amendment to our Constitution had been ratified which lowered the voting age to 18. It was a time when an entire cohort of young men slightly older than myself had disappeared into the arms of a “selective service,” some of them never to return from foreign lands with names like Vietnam and Cambodia. Of those that did return, many came home with lingering damage to their bodies and their psyches, very different human beings from those who had left their families, homes and communities just months before.
The reasoning that prompted the lowering of the voting age was simple: A man who was old enough to die for his country was old enough to vote on the leaders who would make the decision to draft and deploy him.
I was draft age in 1972 and had dutifully registered with the selective service on my 18th birthday. I would later sit up with my buddies from community college all night watching lottery numbers being drawn from a roulette wheel that determined our draft order. I was lucky. My number of 261 meant I would never be called up. And within months, the debacle in Southeast Asia would be over, at least for the Americans who were able to flee the sinking ship they were unable to prop up any longer.
The selective service office in Bushnell was across the street from the supervisor of elections office. So when I finished at the first, I walked over to the second to become a registered voter. In Fall of 1972 I cast my first vote and have never missed an election since that time.
I voted for Democrat George McGovern in the presidential election that year. I knew he did not have a prayer of winning. But I also knew that his opponent - the man I had instinctively distrusted as a child - was still not trustworthy and within months his depravity would reveal itself in an office complex named Watergate.
When my Father asked me for whom I had voted, I simply said that I rectified the error I had involuntarily made in 1960 and cancelled out that earlier vote for Richard Nixon. He shook his head in dismay, saying “I can’t believe you did that.” But, in truth, I was simply being the man he had raised me to be.
The Dark Side of Democracy
I grew up in a family that was well read, well informed and expected you to hold your own in the sometimes-heated political discussions at our dinner table. My parents did not always agree on any number of subjects nor did their children. But we were expected to be able to say why we thought as we did and articulate those reasons when challenged. It would be many years before I would realize that this familial pattern was not normative for every family.
Those expectations would serve me well as an undergraduate student of history and political science at the University of Florida and later as a law student at the same university. It was in the process of studying about the operations of our democratic republic that I came to believe in the fundamental values of this form of government and, correspondingly, in the sacredness of the right to vote.
Over the years as a practicing attorney and a college instructor of American Government, I came to know both the virtues and the dark side of our democratic republic. I came to realize that democracy was broader than a mere majoritarianism in which those with power in a society always had the potential – and often operated out of a sense of entitlement - to tyrannize the minority and deny them their full seat at the table. The Tyranny of the Majority that thinkers from Madison to De Tocqueville to Mill have decried is always the potential Shadow side of democracies.
As an attorney, I came to realize the pathologies of the power element that underlies legal positivism. This approach to law presumes the validity of laws duly passed by legislatures or acts engaged by executives regardless of their clear arbitrary content (like the ongoing denial of former felons’ right to vote in Florida) or their deleterious impact on the powerless segments of the population. In the process I painfully discovered over and over in my practice as a public defender that might does NOT make right, it simply provides power to its holders which, if abused, results in tyranny.
Nowhere is that tyranny more evident than in the politics of voter suppression. I have seen this first-hand in my time spent as an international election observer in El Salvador. There, amidst a countryside scarred by napalm dropped from U.S. provided helicopters and the ruins of churches and homes destroyed by U.S. funded and trained paramilitaries, I watched peasants stand in a tropical sun for four and five hours to vote, many of them for the first time in their lives. Their determination to participate in their own self-governance was incredibly humbling to an American whose fellow citizens have a spotty record at best in meeting their duties as citizens.
Because many were illiterate, each would come to the registry table, state their names, stick their finger into the bottle containing a purple ink and then leave their fingerprint on the page where the registrar told them their name appeared. All of this would occur under the watchful eyes of those of us summoned from around the world to observe the process and in the shadow of the automatic weapons borne by United Nations peacekeepers.
I learned two things from that experience. First, voting is a right, not a privilege. Our Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the Constitution recognize that. While it can be denied the powerless by the powerful, it never stops being a right. To the degree that voting represents the uniqueness of the individual casting their ballot and participating in communal decision making, voting is sacred. Like the unique image of G_d each of those voters bears, their votes express their uniqueness and must be respected in a healthy, principled system of governance.
The second thing I learned very quickly is that when the trust that all governments must command to retain their sense of legitimacy with the populace has been damaged by their willingness to abuse their power, it does not come back quickly. Indeed, it was in El Salvador that I learned a troubling new concept:
Even as those peasants cast their ballots that day, they expressed to me their distrust of the tallying of those ballots and the results that would come from it.MS 13 Gang, El Salvador
Sadly, legitimacy has never been able to be completely restored in many of the countries in Central America where U.S. foreign policies serving global economic interests destroyed infrastructure along with the ability of the people to trust their government. That failure of legitimacy is readily observable in the instability in post-Contra states marked by armed gangs and the flood of refugees seeking asylum at the borders of the country which played such a large role in their implosions.
In My Own Backyard
But one doesn’t have to cross borders to find examples of the desecration of the right to vote. In my retirement my time has been largely occupied in working with the Alliance for Truth and Justice (ATJ), a local organization affiliated with Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Rights Initiative which is dedicated to commemorating the victims of lynching. Our local organization was formed to commemorate the events surrounding the Election of 1920 here in Orange County.
On the year when the denial of the right to vote based on sex was ended by the Nineteenth Amendment, Florida's white Democratic establishment, many of whom were not-so-secret members of the Ku Klux Klan, was intent that African-Americans would not exercise their right to vote. And when they tried in Ocoee, Florida, even in the face of threatened violence, the result would be a massacre of the African-American community there.
Though this had all occurred a mere 10 miles west of this city where I have spent the majority of my life, I did not know this story until the late 1990s when a play entitled “The Whirlwind Passeth” was performed at a local theater. It brought to life the massacre in Ocoee, a horrific chapter of our collective history.
A century later, on November 2, the city of Ocoee will finally dedicate a state historic marker in its civic center plaza, due in part to the efforts of the ATJ, recalling that awful night which began with the denial of the sacred right to vote. But it was amidst my work for the Alliance that a chapter of my own family history that marked a victory for that right suddenly came into focus.
For about 20 years my family employed an African-American woman named Henrietta to help my working parents raise my baby sister. Henrietta was a part of our family living in our home during the day and her own home at night. We all loved her. In retrospect, I see her as one of the essential wisdom figures in my own life and, at a time when our local society was desegregating, that wisdom was sorely needed.
On Election Day 1968, my Dad asked Henrietta if she planned to vote that day. “Oh, I don’t know, Mr. Coverston,” she replied, hesitating. Many employers of black workers refused to give them time off to vote and the stories of poll “watchers” who actively harassed black voters to prevent them from voting were legendary.
My Dad said, “Well, I’m going to vote this afternoon and I can take you by on your way home.” And so that afternoon, my Dad would stand in line with Henrietta until both had voted.
At the time it didn’t mean much to me. My Dad was a considerate man and, like the rest of the family, loved Henrietta. But there were a lot of unspoken concerns being communicated in their exchange. Henrietta did not want to be harassed at the polls and very possibly turned away without voting. My Dad, on the other hand, was intent that this would not happen. By his mere presence there he communicated to the townspeople of this small town where he had been born and raised that this woman’s right to vote would be respected.
It was a silent but highly effective way of resisting tyranny. And the struggle against that tyranny continues a half century later in the work his son is now doing.
“I think I’ve seen this movie before…”
Because voting is a right, it comes with a duty to others in its exercise. Thinkers from Aristotle to Jefferson have spoken of the requirements in a healthy democratic society for its members to become educated, inform themselves and participate in the process with an eye to the common – and never merely the individual or mere tribal – good. I am heartened by the level of engagement I am seeing in this election. It appears clear to me that many of us recognize the existential threat to the very soul of our nation at stake here.
But I am also concerned that the pattern of voter repression and intimidation is not a mere aspect of our nation’s history. When I hear of armed “poll watchers” or voters being denied registry because they have not paid undisclosed “fees” or closing of polling places in neighborhoods to create backups at those which remain open or plans to disqualify ballots on technicalities, the alarms go off in my head. Seems I have seen this movie before. This is a page right out of the playbook of the Klan violence riddled Election of 1920 which UF historian Paul Ortiz has called “the bloodies day in U.S. Electoral history.”
In a democratic system in which the right to vote is sacred, these are all acts of desecration. They represent often blatant behaviors to tilt the playing field by those who fear that their ideas and candidates cannot prevail in a fair election.
What effect they may have on next Tuesday’s vote is yet unclear. But what it does signal to those of us who would venerate and protect the sacred right of and duties to vote is that we have our work cut out for us. That begins with educating our populace about their government and catechizing them in the sacred rights and duties of responsible citizenship. And it will mean restraining the depravities of those governments that would act (or fail to act) to that desecrate the same.
May that work begin the moment the last ballot is counted.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2020