Debbie Ingram: Don’t take voting for granted

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Sen. Debbie Ingram, D-Chittenden, of Williston, who is also the executive director of Vermont Interfaith Action. She is currently running for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.

During the 1980s and early 1990s I lived in Los Angeles. One election year I was working with a video game producer who was young, male, wealthy, and good-looking – and also straight, white, and privileged. Some of us in the office were talking about the upcoming election when he declared that he found that topic boring and wasn’t going to vote anyway. I was shocked, incensed, and so flustered that all I could say was, “But people have died for your right to vote!” He laughed and said, “So I should vote because some old guys died in wars I had nothing to do with?”

Voting rights in our country have been increasingly under attack. Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been fulfilled, so we don’t need to protect marginalized communities from being disenfranchised anymore, access to voting has been systematically eroded for many. 

Polling places in low-income neighborhoods and those that primarily serve people of color are being closed in many states. The shortage of polling locations means those who do show up must wait in long lines for hours. Many states do not allow for early voting, or allow it only for a short period. Some states require that a voter have a “reason” for requesting an absentee ballot.

Vermont has long allowed voters to request an absentee, or mail-in ballot; to vote early in person at their Town Hall; or to drop off a ballot early or at their polling place on election day. During this Covid era, our secretary of state, along with our hard-working town and city clerks, are doing us one better – they have mailed postcards to us to ask if we want a primary ballot, and if we do, they have mailed us the ballots, including postage-paid return envelopes.

You get the feeling that our public officials actually want us Vermonters to vote.

Indeed, I hope that all Vermonters do want to vote, and will vote in the Aug. 11 primary – especially since it’s been made pretty darn easy for us to do so this year. Sometimes, though, when something is too easy we take it for granted. Like that privileged producer in Los Angeles in 1992, some people aren’t moved by how hard-fought it was for all Americans to be able to vote, nor are they swayed by the fact that they can vote when so many others cannot.

Let me leave you with an additional story, because the fact that not everyone who wants to vote can reminds me of the seven years in the late 1990s when I lived and worked in Bangladesh, where I went through three election cycles.

During one cycle, the United Nations made a big push to ensure that the elections were “free and fair.” This involved international monitoring of polling places, and I volunteered as a monitor. I traveled to a remote rural area and visited several polling places on election day. At one polling place, I arrived just in time to hear the story that a gang of thugs from one party had swooped in to disrupt the voting, stolen the ballot box, and in the melee, shot and killed a poll worker. I witnessed the worker’s body being taken away by three soldiers from a platoon that had come to restore order.

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It’s hard to take voting for granted when you literally see someone die to protect that right. It’s also hard to take it for granted when you are Black or brown or LGBTQ or live with disabilities or belong to the “wrong” religion and have been denied your rights. Out of respect and gratitude, I for one will be exercising my right, so strongly protected here in Vermont, to vote on Aug. 11.


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