American Truth: Voting

PADUCAH — If you voted in the 2016 presidential election and plan to vote in the May 21 Kentucky primary, you’re not the typical voter. In fact, in the 2016 presidential election, only a little more than 55% of Americans eligible to vote showed up at the polls nationwide.

The turnout numbers are downright dismal for statewide races in Kentucky during non-presidential election years. In McCracken County there were 51,552 registered voters in 2015. Only 4,973 people voted, which is a 9.6% voter turnout. In 2011, the voter turnout was even worse at 7.2%.

On a sunny, humid May afternoon, we were there when McCracken County Clerk Julie Griggs unlocked the door to a small brick building near the courthouse. Inside is something that doesn’t necessarily look impressive, but the building’s contents represent a fundamental right and solemn responsibility.

“This is our building where we keep all of our voting equipment — the e-scan machines, the e-slate machines. We’ve got 54 of each, so that’s 108 — 108 machines we’ve got in here,” Griggs said.

McCracken County Clerk Julie Griggs

On the day we caught up with Griggs at the storage building she was about to join McCracken County Board of Elections members to certify and verify every single machine with the help of her office employees.

“We’re checking each machine, making sure the tape says we’re starting at a zero balance,” Griggs said.

She said the low number of eligible voters who show up to cast their ballot is disheartening.

“Voting is a privilege. Men and women have fought and died for us to do this, so I don’t think it’s something we should take for granted,” Griggs said.

How Americans vote has changed and so has who is allowed to vote. The U.S. Constitution never originally defined who could vote. That was left up to the states. In our country’s early history, most states allowed only white men who owned property to cast a ballot.

In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution granted African American men the right to vote, declaring the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Of course, it would take almost a century to see that fully realized — not until 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

Decades before, there was another movement in the fight for voting rights: women’s suffrage.  

Leaders of the movement included Susan B. Anthony who, in a speech to rally support, said “It is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government — the ballot.”

In 1920 the 19th Amendment prohibited the government from denying the right to vote to citizens on the basis of sex.

Inside the walls of Paducah Tilghman High School, the next generation of voters is about to graduate. One of those students is 18-year-old senior Kristioje White. She’s smart, motivated and ready to voice her opinion in the voting booth.

“Change starts somewhere, and I think it could really start with people around my age. And I want to be a part of that, so I don’t think not voting is an option for me,” White chuckled.

She said people her age share the same beliefs despite what older adults may think of their generation.

“With every vote, it’s somebody telling somebody else what they want for their future, and I think that’s a pretty big deal. I know what I want, and I’m pretty firm in what I want. And so I definitely look at that when I look at candidates,” White said.

Paducah Tilghman High School senior Kristioje White.

The fact that White is a young African American woman who’s exercising her right her vote is something that crosses her mind.

“Of course it does! Of course, because I know what it’s like for other girls who are my age in other countries who don’t have the opportunities that I do. And I know what it’s like, well, I acknowledge the past and what it was like for people who looked like me and didn’t have the opportunities that I do, and I take that very seriously,” White said.

“Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said.