EDITORIAL NOTE: This is a guest blog post written by Stacy Doepner-Hove, President, League of Women Voters of Minnesota
“My uncle was shot on the steps of the county courthouse while trying to register black voters.” said Scott Gray, CEO of the Minneapolis Urban League. He was finishing his welcome for the press conference I was to speak at when he told this story. The press conference was called to talk about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder.
While the League of Women Voters of Minnesota works alongside numerous other organizations seeking to engage new and underrepresented voters, I met Mr. Gray just minutes before he began his remarks and we chatted briefly about how our two organizations could better work together to engage voters here in the Twin Cities. We stood there as leaders of our respective organizations but the paths that brought us to that podium were very different. When he relayed his very personal story, the moment changed for me.
Here I was President of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota getting ready to read my prepared speech (PDF) about how the League has long worked to improve access and engagement in voting. But what had I personally risked? Who in my background had suffered?
Scott’s credibility was real and personal. I tried, as I stood there listening to him, to think of one person in my family that had been denied the right to vote once they had become a citizen of the United States. And while I couldn’t recollect a personal story, the history of the League is full of dedicated activists who fought for decades to empower half the population with the right to vote. The founders of the League, indeed, risked a great deal in winning the right to vote in 1920. And while the suffrage movement was not without its own issues regarding racial tensions, in the end activists of all races ad genders came together to successfully advocate for women’s suffrage. Yet, despite their success, many men and women remained unable to exercise their right to vote until the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which sought to prevent discrimination in the voting process, nearly 50 years after the passage of the 19th amendment won women the right to vote.
So what do I, as a League leader, bring to the table today? I bring that very privilege that has allowed me and my ancestors to participate in our great democracy without threat of harm for nearly 100 years. I also bring a responsibility to make sure that every eligible citizen becomes a voter and is able to vote on the issues that matter the most to them and have their vote count just as much as mine and the other voters across this great nation. This is why the League proudly stood with our coalition members to defeat last year’s ballot initiative that would have suppressed the vote in Minnesota by instituting a restrictive voter photo ID requirement.
I have never lost a family member trying to register to vote – so I speak loudly to ensure that no one is denied the right to register and vote. I have never had to take four buses across town to get to and from the courthouse, with children in tow, to gather documents proving my identity so I can get an ID that will allow me to vote – so I give a bit of my time to help people register close to where they live. I have never had anyone look at me and question if I really live in the district in which I am voting – so I help educate voters about their rights through VOTE411.org, at candidate forums and through Voter Hotlines to help those who don’t know the rules feel ready to cast their ballot on Election Day.
It is my very privilege – as a middle-class, professional, white woman from Minnesota – that compels me to do what I can to ensure that all citizens can feel as free and secure as I do when they exercise their right to vote. Recognizing the privilege I’ve been afforded, I don’t feel at risk when working to register new voters and believe it is my responsibility to ensure that the promise of our democracy includes everyone. I truly have nothing to lose and only freedom to gain.