Opponents Team Up Against Voting Rights
Les Francis served as Rep. Norman Mineta’s first congressional chief of staff before moving to Jimmy Carter’s White House as deputy assistant to the president and eventually deputy White House chief of staff. He remained active in national politics and public affairs from offices in Washington, D.C., for four decades before returning to his native California in 2016.
In the week that we have commemorated Martin Luther King’s birthday, I found myself thinking about a football coach. And the football angle has nothing to do with the NFL playoffs.
In 1990, the voters of Arizona rejected a ballot measure that would have established a state holiday honoring the birth of the great civil rights icon. The result offended the nation; countless conventions, conferences and events were canceled. Phoenix was dropped as the site of the 1993 Super Bowl.
The 1990 election results also angered members of the University of Arizona football team. They were hurt; many of them took the rejection personally. The players, most of them ages 18-21, raised the issue with then U of A head coach Dick Tomey. His response was classic Tomey: “How many of you are registered to vote, and voted in the election?” Only a scattering of hands went up.
As Dick recalled the incident to me years later, he then advised the team, in effect, “If you aren’t registered, and/or you didn’t vote, it’s on you.” But he did not stop there. He went out and got a huge batch of voter registration forms and got all — or almost all — of the players to sign up. And he pushed voter registration to every team he coached thereafter — several more years at Arizona, then Hawaii and then, in my presence at my alma mater, San Jose State.
The people of Arizona reversed field in 1992 when they approved a MLK holiday, not because football players made the difference, but because they decided to be part of making a difference.
Last weekend, members of the King family were in the Grand Canyon State rallying voters to put pressure on Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who is one of those blocking the current voting rights legislation in Congress. Hopefully, there were student athletes in attendance.
As the debate in Congress around voter suppression, election security and other critical matters related to the franchise are taking place, it is worth considering Coach Tomey’s lesson to his players.
Young people in America gained the franchise via passage and ratification of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution (a struggle laid out in dramatic detail in a book published this week, “Let Us Vote: Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment,” by Jennifer Frost). And while the debates today on Capitol Hill center on the voting rights of African Americans and other racial/ethnic groups, we cannot ignore the attempts to erect barriers to young voters occurring in state capitols across the country.
As one of the nation’s foremost legal authorities on the topic, Yael Bromberg, has pointed out in her writings, legislators in at least 48 states have introduced bills that have younger voters clearly in mind — limiting access to vote-by-mail, mandating stricter voter identification requirements (e.g., disallowing official student IDs as proof), curbing the voter registration process, tightening early voting, etc. While such measures seem neutral or innocent on the surface, their intent is anything but. They are designed, with precision, to suppress the youth vote.
It is worth pointing out, as Bromberg has noted, that fully 70% of younger voters took advantage of early or absentee voting in 2020, when the nation embraced election modernization in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic. She underscored this key fact in a co-authored report titled “Age Discrimination in Voting at Home,” examining 2018 trends: “When voting at home is available to younger folks, they use it. Only 6.6% of voters 18 to 24 voted by mail in states that restrict this option, compared to 22.5% nationally.”
After several election cycles of disappointing and stagnant levels of youth voting, Barack Obama’s candidacy sparked surge in such participation, and their enthusiasm and commitment carried through the 2020 election — their level of turnout went up a full 11 percentage points from 2016.
That is why Republican state legislators, egged on by Donald Trump and his congressional enablers, are pushing measures to make it harder for young people, especially students, to exercise the franchise. This is not a mystery. It is a calculated effort to diminish the political clout of a huge and growing cohort of American voters who have become alienated from the modern version of the Republican Party.