Voting can be frustrating. You might have to wait minutes, or even hours, in line. If you don’t feel enthusiastic about a candidate and think all your choices are flawed, it might not seem worth it.
If you’re feeling like that on Election Day, I’d like you to read the story of Reginald Albright.
Albright’s a 20-year-old man from Memphis, Tennessee. This year, he voted for the first time. It might have been his last. And he very nearly missed his chance to vote at all.
David Waters of the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis told Albright’s story in a column last month. You should really read the whole thing.
Albright was charged with a felony in federal court this fall: He sat outside in a car while two friends (one of whom was armed) attempted to rob a CVS last year, and now faces 20 years for conspiracy to commit armed robbery.
He was about to plead guilty when this happened:
By pleading guilty, the attorney explained, Albright would be rendered infamous.
That meant he would be deprived of some of his rights as a citizen – his rights to have a gun, to sit on a jury, to hold public office.
"What about my right to vote?" Albright asked.
"You'd lose that, too," attorney Alex Wharton replied.
"Can I vote before I plead guilty?" Albright asked.
Albright ended up getting his hearing delayed so he could go vote for the first — and possibly, the last — time.
Public policy shapes human lives
Tennessee is one of several states that disenfranchises people who’ve been convicted of felonies even after they’ve been released from prison. (There’s a process by which someone who’s completed a sentence can petition the government to get his or her right to vote restored, but a 2014 report by the Tennessee Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights called the process “both lengthy and complicated — in some cases prohibitively so.”) The Sentencing Project, a criminal-justice advocacy and policy organization, estimates that more than 20 percent of Tennessee’s black voting-age population is disenfranchised due to the state’s laws.
If Albright lived in another state — or if Tennessee had different legislators — pleading guilty to a crime wouldn’t carry the possibility of giving up the right to vote for life.
That’s far from the only way that public policy shaped Albright’s life. He’s a graduate of a public high school who attended community college, but dropped out when he ran out of money. His mother, who has a disability, gets Social Security benefits, but Albright stopped getting a share of those when he turned 18.
Public policy might not shape your life as obviously as it shaped Reginald Albright’s, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t shape your life at all. Voting is one of the few chances you get to shape public policy back — to elect legislators and pass referenda that not only reflect your values, but that will influence who gets to participate in democracy going forward.
People fought for this because it’s important
This is why voting matters so much to Reginald Albright.
"I know my history," he said.
He knows his Mississippi ancestors were spat on, slapped, threatened or worse for merely trying to register to vote.
He knows they faced laws designed to inhibit or prevent them from voting – taxes they couldn't possibly pay, tests they couldn't possibly pass, whites-only primaries.
He knows how hard and long they struggled to gain the right to vote, and how long and hard they struggled to be allowed the privilege of voting.
"My family takes voting seriously and so do I," he said.
Albright didn’t get spat on, but he, too, had to fight to be able to vote — and will have to fight again once he’s released from prison. Millions of people have had to fight to vote, and are having to fight to vote right now.
You might not care much about voting. But your choice in whether to vote and whom to vote for affects how easy it is for people who do care.
What both Reginald Albright and his ancestors know is that voting would not have been made difficult if it weren’t so powerful. It is powerful whether yours is the deciding vote in a close race, or one vote in a landslide — because it’s not just a tally mark in a particular race, but a reminder to politicians and the public that you and your community have a stake in democracy. That you cannot be ignored.
Albright left the courtroom with his mother.
He pushed her wheelchair out of the federal building half a block up Front Street, then two blocks down Poplar to the Shelby County Election Commission.
They waited in line about half an hour. She pushed him to vote first.
"I knew he'd been waiting a long time," she said.
After they both voted, Albright pushed his mother's wheelchair back to the federal building and into the courtroom.
"Did you vote?" the judge asked.
"Yes, sir," Albright said, pointing to his Tennessee-shaped "I Voted" sticker.
He thanked the judge for allowing him to vote for the first time in his life.
Then he pleaded guilty to a Class C felony and forfeited his right to vote.
If you still have that right today, go exercise it.