The Dream of Voting *Whenever* We Want

On this blog, when I asked readers to recommend a book for a school-age audience that is something Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is not — a book by a person of color about a person of color — more than one person suggested Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.*

I’ve finally read it, and so have my 9-year-old twins.

This captivating memoir, written in verse, is better for a slightly younger audience than To Kill a Mockingbird is. In my opinion, based on what my kids read, Brown Girl Dreaming will likely appeal to kids in 4th through 6th grade, while To Kill a Mockingbird is probably best for kids in 7th through 9th.

Brown Girl Dreaming focuses on the author’s life as she grows up in the 1960s and 1970s in Ohio, South Carolina, and New York. We meet her family, her teachers, and her friends. We learn about her hopes and dreams. While To Kill a Mockingbird is a sensational portrayal of overt injustice against African Americans seen through the eyes of a white child, Brown Girl Dreaming conveys the daily reality of racism, often subtle, seen through the eyes of a black child. It’s a poignant and powerful book that children should read. I’m glad my twins have.

Woodson was born in Ohio with roots in South Carolina during a time of profound societal change. Near the beginning of the book, she writes:

I am born as the South explodes,

Too many people too many years

enslaved, then emancipated

but not free, the people

who look like me

keep fighting

and marching

and getting killed

so that today—

February 12, 1963

and every day from this moment on,

brown children like me can grow up

free. Can grow up

learning and voting and walking and riding

wherever we want.

That last part is the promise of the laws passed during Woodson’s childhood, particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But for many people, that promise is broken, thanks to our court system, which, for example, invalidated an important part of the Voting Rights Act only a few years ago.

Our highest court is poised to hear another important voting rights case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, et al, which stems from Ohio, where Woodson’s memoir begins. As I discussed in Will the Supreme Court Allow States To Penalize Americans Who Don’t Vote?, the case focuses on Ohio’s suspicious process of purging infrequent voters from its rolls. The process assumes that infrequent voters have moved, a faulty assumption that (1) ignores the fact that the right to vote includes the right not to vote, and (2) ultimately strips a fundamental right from people who haven’t voted because of obstacles to voting.

Voting isn’t easy. I say that as a local judge of election in a state that neighbors Ohio (and may employ a similar purging process). In my state, we have limited voting hours, no early voting (other than limited absentee ballots), long lines in many precincts, improperly printed poll books, and unresponsive voter services on the county level.

Those lucky enough to receive a “voter ready” slip then have to read the tiny print on the machine, navigate the confusing ballot design, figure out which buttons to push, and then how to exit. Every election, there are some people who continue to stand in the booth after they’ve cast their ballot, waiting for the curtains to open, which doesn’t happen automatically in my county. Do you know how embarrassed they are when they finally leave? They remind me of how awkward and alienating voting often is, and that’s the case even for those who are able to access the polling place and afford the time off from work and the transportation required to get there to wait in line.

As the National Disability Rights Network, et al wrote in their amicus brief (PDF) in this case:

[T]he burdens of long lines do not fall evenly on all voters. … Recent research shows that wait times in minority neighborhoods, which are also disproportionately poor, are about twice the length of wait times in mostly white neighborhoods… [The] increased obstacles to voting… fall doubly hard on low-income voters because ‘they possess few of the resources needed to overcome those costs.’ The natural result of the foregoing is dramatically lower turnout among low-income voters.

Thus, infrequent voting is not necessarily an indication that someone has moved and is therefore ineligible to vote in that location. Ohio is simply using that excuse to make it even harder for people to vote. It’s a voter suppression scheme that will only further ensure that one of the dreams in Brown Girl Dreaming — that “brown children… [c]an grow up learning and voting and walking and riding wherever we want” — will never become a reality for many people.

The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments in this case on November 8th, but that date has been postponed. [Update: The court heard arguments in this case on January 10, 2018]


*Thank you to Laila @ Big Reading Life & Peggy Adams for recommending Brown Girl Dreaming to me!


  1. Wow AMB – Jane (below) said it all for me. Voting here is simple and a matter of minutes with every difficulty anticipated and dealt with. I generally pop in on my way to work. Forget your ID? If one of the poll station helpers recognises you, go ahead, no worries. (Sadly, here in Jersey CI, the voter turnout is nevertheless pretty low.)

    1. It’s interesting to hear how it’s done in Jersey. Every state in the US has its own voting process, and some states make voting more accessible than others do (Oregon is one of the best, while Pennsylvania is one of the worst). How accessible voting is depends on what political party is in charge.

  2. Jacqueline Woodson is wonderful; I am so glad that she’s part of the literary landscape. I read Another Brooklyn earlier this year and was really impressed with her writing.

    Voter suppression — oh, Amal, I don’t know what we’re going to do. I feel so frustrated about this push to take voting rights away from people, and I don’t know how to communicate to the right that voter suppression is what they’re engaged in, rather than voter fraud prevention. (I know that’s a naive thing to say; I know the ones running the game already know. But rank-and-file people must not? Surely?)

    1. I know what you mean. Recently, I went to a presentation for the public about voting rights, and I was shocked by how many people in the audience thought that strict voter ID laws are a good idea. Everyone has ID, they said. Everyone carries it around all the time, they said. It won’t cause a problem for anyone, they insisted.


      Not everyone has acceptance forms of identification, depending on how narrowly the law defines what is acceptable, and not everyone carries it with them to the polls. Currently, in Pennsylvania, a new voter in the precinct must show identification, but there’s a range of what is acceptable (so it isn’t just state-issued ID that works). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone come in to vote who just isn’t carrying around their wallet. They leave to get it, and only some of them come back to vote. I can’t imagine asking *everyone* for ID every time they voted. It would take forever to get through the line, many people wouldn’t have it on them, and then there’s the question of what happens when there’s a slight discrepancy between the ID and the registration (like a married name on one and not the other).

      There is no reason to put people through that hell all to solve a problem that doesn’t exist (in person voter fraud). It’s only worth it if you’re a member of a political party that doesn’t have a future unless it suppresses the vote.

  3. Although I often complain about books in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming is one of the standouts of the genre – both the story of Woodson’s life and the poetry are well done. Woodson has quite a few picture books as well that tackle difficult topics beautifully. On another note, I’ve just finished a book about the Holocaust called A Special Fate that you and the girls might like to read.

    I’m lucky to currently live in an area that makes early voting easy and voting in general fairly painless. There was one area that I lived in where I simply didn’t vote for a few years because of the process involved.

    1. Thank you for the recommendation! We’re always looking for historical fiction and nonfiction books about the Holocaust.

      As for voting, you are very lucky! It’s amazing how different states are when it comes to voting. I was just reading about Oregon’s system, which is far more accessible than Pennsylvania’s.

  4. Thanks for the mention! I’m so glad you enjoyed this. It’s such a beautiful book, one I plan to read with my son in a couple of years. Additionally, I think voting should be as easy and convenient as possible. It’s shameful that we have let our voting system get so unnecessarily politicized.

  5. Wow, AMB, it is an eye-opener to read details of just how inaccessible voting is the country that has reasonable claim to be the World’s first democracy, setting an example for others. And inaccessible in so many ways; it’s hard to fathom. In Canada, we continue to use a simple paper ballet with the candidate names printed in large letters and a box to check off next to each one. Check the box next to each person you’re voting for. Period. We get our names checked off the voters lists, are given our ballots, go stand at a card table behind a cardboard screen for privacy, fold up the ballots, go have them initialed by a volunteer scrutineer, and then place them in the ballot box. Counting the ballots by a group of scrutineers representing all parties usually takes an hour or less at each polling station. The physical ballots remain for recounts if necessary. Early voting is encouraged and has been expanded in the past few elections. This is common practice around the globe. How did it get so complicated and inaccessible in the U.S.? I get that there are far more positions being voted for, but surely there are ways to deal with this beyond making it so complicated that it needs machines that break down and requires a reading and sight level that precludes many voters. It’s surprising that a country that prides itself on its example to the world of open democracy hasn’t taken strong steps to change these shortcomings.

    1. Hi Jane- It’s interesting to hear how voting works in Canada. How our system in the United States developed into something so complicated is–of course–a complicated story. Every state’s system is different, and some states (like Oregon) are more accessible than others (like Pennsylvania and Ohio). In contrast to my description of the onerous voting process in Pennsylvania, this is a description of what it’s like in Oregon (via Rolling Stone):

      “Oregon pioneered universal vote-by-mail back in 1998, a practice adopted in recent years by Washington state and Colorado. The process is simple: Everyone in the state is an absentee voter. There are no precinct locations, no lines, no voting machines, no checking of photo IDs. There’s no hidden tax from having to take time off work to vote. The department of elections just mails out ballots to all registered voters a couple weeks prior to election day. In the privacy of their own homes or apartments, voters can research candidates and ballot initiatives, make thoughtful decisions, mark their ballots and seal them in a signed envelope. From there, voters either mail the ballots back, or, if they’re late deciders, drop them off in a centralized dropbox.”

      That’s a much better system than anything voters deal with in Pennsylvania. How did it end up like this? Partisan politics controlled by a party that only has a future if it suppresses the vote. They make sure we don’t have early voting and that everyone must affirmatively register (instead of being automatically registered). They purge the voter rolls (inevitably removing people who haven’t moved and should still have the right to vote), and they have passed legislation to make it harder for people to vote. A few years ago, for example, our Republican-controlled state legislature passed and the Governor at the time (also a Republican) signed a repressive and illegal voter ID law that, thankfully, our courts stopped. I’m pessimistic about the odds that our courts will do much more to remove barriers to voting.

      The result of these barriers is low voter registration and low voter turnout. Last week, we had an election, and voter turnout in my precinct was incredibly low. We had only 403 people (including the two who voted by absentee ballot) vote out of almost 1,400 registered voters. However, I was happy to see that other areas didn’t have the low turnout we did and that voters are rejecting Trumpism.

      1. Thank you for such a full accounting of the voting process in all its variations across the U.S., Amal (I decided to switch from AMB after reading your Amal post!). It’s reassuring that there are pockets of open, transparent voting, but would be astounding to much of the world that has watched this strong country that has espoused democracy around the world to realize that there are such “inadequacies” across the country. I, like you, took some cautious hope from last week’s elections. Now to watch Alabama! I have just posted a blog post that makes mention of your blog and Anusha. I hope you don’t mind.

        1. I’m watching Alabama too! It’s hard to believe anyone would vote for Roy Moore, but that’s the state of partisan politics these days.

          Thank you for mentioning Anusha in your post!

    1. It’s hard to believe we’re already well into November. Election day was somewhat disappointing at my precinct because we had such low turnout (only 403 people, including the two who voted by absentee ballot, voted out of almost 1,400 registered voters). However, I’m happy about the results in general, particularly in Virginia and New Jersey.

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