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By J. Samuel Diaz                             Follow East Palo Alto Today on
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Posted Thursday, May 31, 2012       
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There is one aspect of U.S. citizenship that still evades comprehension: Voting and the responsibilities that go along with it.  Whole books can be written about the long and painful history of obtaining the right to vote for all U.S. citizens.

In 1760s Boston, those who did not own property could not vote and were also excluded from participating in town hall meetings.  So blacks, Indians and women could not vote there.

And during the period after the Civil War, blacks living in the South enjoyed a short renaissance and they helped introduce free education for residents regardless of their race.  They participated in government and showed they could ably perform those duties. In 1875, a Civil Rights Act became law and helped remove forms of segregation in cinemas and other places.Yet it only lasted a few, paltry years.

While in the North, a full 19 of the 24 states did not allow blacks to vote following the Civil War.  That short, brief period of awakening was quickly destroyed by the KKK and others who violently promoted white supremacy and Jim Crow laws.

The Women’s Suffrage movement gave women the right to vote and in the 1920s they were voting and promoting change.  It was a move in the right direction, yet it did not include all women.

In 1954, Gustavo García and Carlos Cadena successfully presented to the U.S. Supreme Court the argument that Pedro Hernández had the right to be tried by a jury of peers.  To put this into context, it meant Mexicans could now be tried by a jury comprised of Mexicans.  In Texas, that just did not happen.

It was a time and place where lynchings and violence against blacks and Mexicans was common and no one was ever held accountable.  Many from the South will tell you how blacks and Mexicans could only be tried by Anglo-Saxon juries, were quickly found guilty of the crime charged and given harsher sentences, whereas Anglo-Saxons could get off scott free, especially in cases where they were known to have committed the crimes.

And what about the poorly enforced civil rights laws passed in 1957, 1960 and 1964?  For the most part, they were simply ignored by a government that did not care.

And what of the hundreds who died during the protests demanding equal civil rights for all during the 1960s when, for the most part, the FBI just looked the other way?  Who could not remember the historic and peaceful battles that Martin Luther King, Jr. and others fought so that everyone today could exercise some of their civil rights?

Well, whole books could be written about those sad and tragic times.  Many people were imprisoned and others outright murdered.  They made those sacrifices so that everyone could have the right to vote and to live in an egalitarian, equal society.  Even today we are still struggling to achieve that.
Need I mention the two most historic acts that were passed?  

Yes, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that the Reverend King helped push through and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Both were signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.  The Voting Rights Act eliminated the voting tax that had prevented many poor citizens from voting and that proved effective in protecting voting rights in the South.  (Coincidentally, Ronald Reagan tried to get Congress to eliminate a crucial section of this latter act because it was too effective in protecting people’s voting rights!)

Today, we have a different story.

Today, U.S. citizens – ALL U.S. CITIZENS – have the right to register to vote and to vote.  In many counties, we have the right to vote at voting booths on election day or to vote via absentee ballot.  We also have the right to participate in town hall meetings and in jury duty and allow the accused to be judged by a jury of true peers.  We do not have to live in fear of being murdered just for having registered to vote.  No, sir.  That is the past and today is a brighter day.

If you are unsure of where you can go to vote, well then just stop by a U.S. post office, a public library or by a voting center.  In San Mateo County, we have two voting centers.  One is located in Redwood City at 555 County Center on the first floor and the other is the Elections Office located in San Mateo at 40 Tower Road.  Both are open weekdays during regular business hours, excluding holidays.  Our county’s election website is www.ShapeTheFuture.org.

These two voting centers are staffed by informed staff who can provide you with a voter’s registration form and answer your questions.  Some people may feel hesitant to register, feeling perhaps some mishap in their lives has invalidated their right to vote.  Well, the voting center officials can answer those questions and more!

The next question after registering is … who do you vote for?  Well, me personally, I look at the integrity of the candidates and their willingness to confront the problems their elected office will need to address.
For instance, on June 5th, we will have county-wide elections to determine who will be elected to San Mateo County’s Board of Supervisors 4th Supervisorial District.  This is an important office, since it determines how county-wide services will be handled.
In regards to that, I am going to ask questions, such as …

  1. What is the candidate’s stance on building a larger county jail?  (This is important, because the current county jail is only some 20 years old and was built to address prisoner overcrowding.  Well, that current jail is now overcrowded, mainly with poor, under-represented residents who, if it weren’t for the extra space, just might not even be imprisoned!)
  2. What is his/her experience in urban and economic development?  (Here, I want to find out if the candidate even has a plan on how to attack today’s problems and not just slogans.  Do they understand our county’s urban and rural layout?)
  3. What do you see are today’s problems in our county?  (I want to find out if they are concerned about funding for public transportation, about funding for hospital and clinic services and other issues I consider important to address the basic needs of all our residents.)

Each voter should develop his/her own list of questions and see if candidates are willing to commit answers.  Visit www.smartvoter.org/vote and look up candidate names.  See if they ran for office before and what they stated in this and prior elections.

In regards to the ability to vote, we still find a society that needs more politicians who strive to improve the lives of all of our residents.  Helen Keller asked in 1911, “We vote.  What does that mean?”  Voting is not a panacea and it has not eliminated poverty in Harlem, for instance.  And in East Palo Alto, unemployment hovers at 17%.

So another question I ask is how does each of the candidates plan to address the economic inequalities that exist in our county?  Will they provide better funding to our schools?  More computers?  More internships and early outreach programs that have proven successful in helping struggling students become aware of their choices and enable them to compete for entry into some of the most competitive colleges and universities?  And what about jobs?  How will candidates encourage businesses to come to San Mateo County and hire local residents?

The talent is here today.  The high tech and bio tech jobs are already in demand.  It only takes matching them together to create jobs for our local communities.  So how will the candidates do that and are they even aware of that?

Today’s voters face challenges that did not exist before.  Many of our strong leaders who were visionaries ahead of their times have passed on.  Martin Luther King was assassinated.  Cesar Chavez passed away.  And yet those leaders helped us understand that we can take ownership of our own lives and destinies.

So the question remains: Will you, a U.S. citizen and resident of San Mateo County, go out and vote?  Or will you just passively watch as our chance for change passes away like the sun setting into the far-off horizon?  The choice is yours whether you want to become a first class citizen or just a passerby. The choice is yours.



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