September 29, 2006

Activist Pushes the Vote

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The first time Project Vote national director and voters’ rights advocate Jehmu Greene tried to vote, she was turned away from the polls. This experience became the driving motivation behind her growth into a powerful voters’ rights advocate and helped her land the presidency of youth voting organization Rock the Vote!
Greene appeared before an audience of Cornellians yesterday in Malott Hall for a talk entitled “Block the Vote: the Stealing of Democracy through Elections Administration,” as part of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs’ 2006-2007 Colloquium Series.
She started by presenting a screening of one of the familiar Rock the Vote campaigns of the 2004 election: a montage of celebrities encouraging viewers to vote. Greene, who joined Rock the Vote in 2000 and became president in 2003, oversaw the registration of 1.4 million new voters during her time as president of the organization. Commenting on Rock the Vote’s close association with MTV, she stressed that the organization was “a small nonprofit” that was independent from the music channel but jokingly added that “P. Diddy has a very nice house.”
Greene left Rock the Vote to become national director of Project Vote, which focuses on eliminating voter suppression and encouraging minority and low-income communities to participate in voting.
“Our nation, as well as our state, functions best when government works for all people and not just a select few,” she said.
In her talk, Greene also addressed the increased participation of young people in the voting process. Crediting them with “energizing the electorate” in the 2004 election, she noted that “young people are turning their attention to holding politicians accountable.”
The problem facing voting today, Greene said, is that “a significant portion of the electorate is still alienated from the voting process.” She cited alarming statistics — only 68 percent of African-Americans are registered to vote, and only 60 percent of them participate in the voting process. The same occurs with Latinos, with only 47 percent of registered Latinos voting and only 44 percent of registered Asian voters.
“When disenfranchised communities are registered, and connections are made to the issues they care about, participation rates increase across the board,” Greene said. She encouraged youth participation in helping to enfranchise minority and low-income communities.
“Young people value diversity. They believe in tolerance — this is the most diverse generation this country has ever had,” she added.
Greene described Project Vote’s mission as twofold, working both to increase voter participation and to monitor election administration. Project Vote’s successes include the 2.3 million low-income voters who voted in the 2004 election, and the organization is looking to expand further by increasing their involvement in preventing improper election administration.
“The government is not doing enough to register new voters,” Greene said. “They win when they stop votes from coming in through the election process.” In 2007, Project Vote plans to create a legislation education and advocacy project with the purpose of monitoring legislation, educating election officials and policymakers, and forming both formal and informal advocacy coalitions in sixteen states.
One of the biggest issues facing Project Vote is state legislation that requires voter IDs in order to vote — while 80 percent of Americans find voter IDs to be a good idea, Greene noted that this may be a result of the “scare tactic” of using the idea of voter fraud to cause people to insist on identification. Greene said that the ID requirement suppresses the votes of senior citizens, Native Americans, and students — those most likely not to have adequate identification. She also noted that the most voter fraud happened with absentee ballots — questioning the government’s focus on voter IDs as a way of drawing the message away from the substance.
Greene ended her talk by encouraging students to get involved in advocating voters’ rights.
“Voting rights are being rolled back,” she said. “It doesn’t matter that the House and Senate put on a big show a few months ago when they reauthorized the Voting Rights Act. They knew it didn’t matter — that reauthorization doesn’t matter when you stop organizations like Project Vote from registering communities to vote.”
“Voting is as divisive an issue as ever before — right here, right now,” Greene said. Joking that if the government put as much effort into achieving world peace as students did into making fake IDs the issue would be solved immediately, Greene added, “It is up to the younger generations to beat back these Jim Crow-like tactics and send a message loud and clear … that it will not be tolerated and we will not see these communities disenfranchised.”
Greene finished off her talk by inviting questions from the audience. She addressed one audience member’s questions about Project Vote’s stance on electronic polling machines, saying, “We need online voting in this country, and online voter registration — we need to find other ways of using technology to increase access, but unfortunately a fear of technology have slowed down the efforts to use technology to increase access.”
Greene’s talk brought positive comments from the audience in the question portion of the lecture.
“[Minority and low-income community disenfranchisement] is like new-age literacy tests and land requirements for voting,” said Lisa Schupak ’09. “As a young country still stumbling through our self-identity, I think this is one of the most crucial issues that we need to address.”