This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, during which more than a thousand volunteers went to assist African Americans in that state in their efforts to vote. From helping people prepare for literacy tests to facing angry mobs at voter registration offices, these volunteers encouraged citizens to navigate through a system steeped in racism to achieve their constitutional rights. During that summer, Mississippi citizens and volunteers were subjected to prison, beatings, even death.
Yet, at the time this violence was happening, leaders in Mississippi claimed that the volunteers were trying to create havoc in their communities. “We treat our blacks well down here,” some whites argued, saying “blacks don’t need to vote because that would complicate matters.” These paternalistic statements masked racist attitudes that gave state sanction to segregation, discrimination, lynching, and other barbarities. If blacks voted, state leaders feared, racist practices would be in retreat.
Today, 50 years after the Mississippi Freedom Summer, 40,000 people with disabilities have been found disqualified from voting in California because they are under conservatorships. The law is clear: A judge cannot take away a person’s right to vote because of a conservatorship. To take away the right to vote, a separate hearing on just that matter needs to be called.
Recently, a consumer of a local day program in Santa Barbara testified in Sacramento about the need to protect funding for the agency he attends. He was so engaged by the experience that a few weeks later he asked the staff at the program to help him register to vote again. When his parents, who had conservatorship over him, found out, they asked the clerk to remove his name from the rolls.
His parents, perhaps like the whites in Mississippi five decades ago, worried that if their son voted, “the boat would rock.” What so many have fought for is the right to have a voice in our democracy. For those in a conservatorship, that right should not automatically be voided.
Historically the right to vote has been attacked by people who are afraid, of what would happen if Group X went to the ballot box. However, the notion that all members of one group would vote one way is stereotyping in the worst way possible. Instead of rushing to conclusions, and then courthouses, about what will happen if one group voted, we should work to create a society in which we needn’t be afraid of what will happen if people of one race, religion, sexual orientation, class, or disability choose to cast their ballot.