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Updated Monday, November 5, 2012 at 06:44 AM

Voting: never perfect but always precious

By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist

I'm glad to be able to vote, and I hope you are, too.

It's a right, a duty and an honor.

Once in a while, especially after a long political season, I have to remind myself that voting still matters. Politics can be mean and dirty, and the roles that money and influence play can make it seem as if a single voter has no sway.

But political choices aren't something you or I make by ourselves anyway. Representative democracy is a group exercise in which each participant counts. Money and influence certainly distort the process, but what, after all, are the big bucks after but your vote?

It's easy to think a once-perfect system got broken in our time, but that isn't so. I like to keep two things in mind, that the system has never been perfect, and that there is no end to the struggle to keep it from going wrong. It will always be a work in progress.

Let's look at how we got here.

Today, many of us worry that a small sliver of the population has undue influence over politics.

In the beginning, only white men who owned property could vote, and there weren't many people in that category, maybe 15 percent of the population or even less. Can you imagine that, after so many had sacrificed so much for democracy in the Revolution?

It took a couple of generations for that to change, but by 1850 most white men could vote, though at least a couple of states adopted literacy tests to keep most Irish Catholic immigrants from voting.

Mexican-American men in the Southwest got citizenship and the right to vote in 1848.

The 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870 gave men regardless of race the right to vote, but it was followed by literacy tests, poll taxes and intimidation to prevent black citizens from exercising their rights.

Over the past four or five years, several states have passed legislation that restricts minority voting rights under the guise of preventing voter fraud. And still the Supreme Court is being asked to end federal oversight of voter laws in precincts that have a history of discrimination, because, heck, this is 2012 and no one discriminates anymore.

Women won the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Washington state had amended its constitution in 1910 to permit women to vote. (Actually women in Washington Territory won the right to vote twice in the 1880s, but the Territorial Supreme Court invalidated the laws.)

Native Americans could vote after the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

Remember that black Americans got the right to vote in 1870. That was mostly theoretical. The first law to try to enforce that right was the 1957 Civil Rights Act, in which the feds said, really, seriously, we mean it.

And the 1957 act was followed by the more effective 1965 Voting Rights Act, which protected all minority Americans from schemes to keep us from the polls. Every few years the provisions of that act are challenged, reminding us that voting is serious business. I also remember that people died in my lifetime over the right for black people to vote in the South.

The country's history is littered with cases of intimidation, vote buying, cheating of every kind you can imagine, because votes are a key to power.

Every voter is one of millions, but each vote has the potential to make a difference. Remember 2004? When Chris Gregoire won her first term as governor by only 133 votes?

Today corporations and political-action committees diminish democracy. Citizens are expected to vote not just for our own personal interests, but in the interests of the nation as a whole. We vote based on our values and morals. Corporate participation is based, naturally, on profit. Corporations shift money from one party to the other depending on which has the votes they need.

Politicians need your vote, and they use money to get your attention, and big money buys more votes and just possibly could influence an official a little bit.

There's always work to be done between elections to shore up our right to choose our representatives. But right now, just vote.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @jerrylarge.


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