Madeleine May Kunin: Our democracy needs to win the ‘right to vote’ wars

Voters receive their ballots before voting in Hyde Park on election day, Tuesday, November 6, 2018. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

This column is by Madeleine May Kunin, a Democrat who was the 77th governor of Vermont, serving from 1985 until 1991. She is the author of “Coming of Age, My Journey to the Eighties.” Her new book of poetry is “Red Kite, Blue Sky.”

The six conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court flicked a green light on to two Arizona rules that will make it harder for poor people and minorities to vote — especially Blacks and Hispanics. This decision adds heft to a national campaign, led by Republican states, to limit the number of Democrats able to vote. Their excuse is that we must eliminate voter fraud, which is largely nonexistent.

As Vermonters we can pride ourselves that we are immune from these “right to vote” wars. We have early voting, same day registration, and encourage the use of absentee ballots.

But even in Vermont, we have a history of Republicans trying to limit the right to vote and Democrats’ effort to increase access.

When I was a legislator in the Vermont House in the 1970s, there was a hot debate in my Government Operations committee over when to cut off voter registration before an election. The debate was prompted by a Supreme Court decision that had declared that the time between registration cutoff and the election time could only be justified if there were a practical administrative reason.

Republicans and town clerks adamantly defended a long number of days needed before voter registration would be cut off. Democrats wanted people to be able to register as late as possible. 

There was a farmer on my committee, Arnold Tibbets from Plainfield, who represented Goddard College. He was afraid that his district would be overrun by hippy Goddard students, and he would lose his seat. He wanted to make voting as hard as possible. An alternative Boston newspaper printed a story that had Vermont overtaken by hippies at the voting booth. It was terrifying to Tibbets.

Voters may be surprised to learn that Vermont once had a poll tax. It was enacted in 1778 and detached from voting in 1974. It refused to die that year; nonpayment of the poll tax meant loss of a driver’s license. Finally, in 1978, the tax was repealed, reluctantly. The Legislature demanded a four-year retransition period, making it effective only in 1982.

The tax’s purpose was not as draconian as it was in Southern states, but even here, poor people found the poll tax burdensome.

The founding fathers mandated that voters had to be landowners for the privilege of voting. Proud believers in democracy, they apparently saw no contradiction between their new form of government and limiting voting to the few.

The battle between expanding or restricting the right to vote has a long history. It is in full swing in 2021. The expanding electorate, evidenced in the 2020 election, is in danger of shrinking.

We have no alternative but to fight back. Our democracy depends on it.

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Madeleine May Kunin

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