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Do we make it too hard to vote?

May 9, 2016

This weekend I had a chance to see President Obama’s speech to the graduating class at Howard, the nation’s best known historic black university. He talked to them about voting and voting rights – but not quite the way you might think.

It was a highly impressive speech.

(You can watch the speech here.)

It seems to me that in recent weeks Obama seems to have gotten his groove back as an orator. He seems looser, much more like the hope-inspiring leader of 2008 than the careworn president.

Possibly this is because he knows he will be a private citizen again in less than nine months.

He praised a young woman named Ciearra Jefferson, the daughter of a single mom who works in an auto plant. Ciearra, the president said, intends to come back to Detroit to help her community have access to the health care they need.

That was a legitimate feel-good story. But I found the president’s remarks on voting especially compelling.

Suddenly, after talking about the need for change, he changed tone with the new graduates.

“Your plan better include voting – not some of the time, but all the time,” he said.

He admitted there is still discrimination, and said that half a century after the Voting Rights Act, “there are still too many barriers in this country to [voting], and "there are still too many people trying to erect new barriers."

Still, he gently reminded them that what they had to face was nothing compared to their ancestors, who risked their lives to vote.

He told them when the nation’s first black president was running for reelection four years ago, “nearly two in three African-Americans turned out.

In 2014, only two in five turned out.

You don’t think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I’ve got to deal with?”

Finally he said, “you know what? Just vote. If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want. It’s not that complicated.” 

The students laughed, and the President had a point. But maybe it is a little more complicated. The day before he spoke at Howard, I had lunch with a freshman state representative from Detroit named Leslie Love.

She’s a woman in her mid-forties, with a background in both theater and human resources. She told me she had turned to politics because she wanted to make a difference for her community.

At one point we started talking about voting, and why so many African-Americans don’t. Representative Love is perhaps a bit closer to the street than the president. She told me that for people with limited education, the ballot can be terrifying.

“For example, it might say, “vote for not more than two,” candidates and they won’t be sure exactly what that means. Does it mean you have to vote for two?

She told me many black folks are too proud to ask for help, and so they don’t vote at all.

Add the fact that there’s no early voting in Michigan, too few polling places in inner city areas, false rumors about the police waiting at the polls to serve warrants, and poor turnout becomes much easier to understand.

The President was right: Everyone needs to vote, and it is easier for some than it once was. But for too many, not easy enough.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.