“On April 14, 1865, a white supremacist named John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. A few days earlier, Booth had heard Lincoln express support for limited Black suffrage. After hearing Lincoln’s speech, Booth responded, ‘Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.’”
This historical fact is on the website for Washington, D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre. It lends itself to a series of virtual programs called “Cabinet Conversations,” looking at a range of racial and public policy issues.
For the most recent discussion about voting, everyone acknowledged that activism has been intense during this election season. There are numerous voter education programs to help people figure out if they are registered to vote, when one can vote, and where to vote. Everyone wants to have a say to influence change in America.
“During the Civil War, Black leaders like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth pushed for not just emancipation, but for full rights, including the right to vote,” said Paul Tetreault, director of Ford’s Theatre, in his introduction to the event.
The Ford’s Theatre conversation on voting featured Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and Maryland lieutenant governor, and Eric Holder Jr., chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and former U.S. attorney general under President Barack Obama. The discussion was moderated by Jonathan Capehart, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post.
The conversation began with reaction to a recent statement made by President Donald Trump about “getting rid of the ballots,” a comment aimed at individuals who vote by mail. The panelists agreed there is little evidence of fraud with mail-in voting, but Steele nevertheless expressed genuine concern about Trump’s statements.
“I think Americans should be put off by a president who would say that any legitimate ballot should be discounted or put in play for the election,” Steele said.
“On some level, Trump thinks he’s going to lose,” he said. “So he wants to delegitimize the result he is expecting in the hope that it will form the basis for employing something that will allow him to keep the presidency.”
Capehart also voiced his frustration with Trump’s assertion and the possible fallout.
“I can’t get over the potential impact on voters to hear that their ballots might not be counted,” he said.
Voter suppression, gerrymandering, purging of voter rolls and unnecessary voter ID laws are a group of tactics to keep people from exercising their right to vote. The speakers stressed the importance of people moving past such efforts.
“I tell people, if you think your vote doesn’t matter, then why do you think people are making it so hard for you to vote?” Holder said. “Think about the people who sacrificed so we would have the right to vote.”
The conversation explored the “popular vote” concept vs. relying on the Electoral College. The panelists admitted it has been confusing when election results do not go the way of the popular vote, as in 2016 when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost the race for the White House to Trump.
There have been efforts to reform the Electoral College in which Steele has been involved. One is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), an agreement among a group of U.S. states and the District of Columbia to award all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“There are reforms out there that can get past the constitutional hurdles,” Steele said.
Holder agreed with the NPVIC concept.
“I think the cleanest way would be to amend the Constitution and do away with the Electoral College,” he said. “I am not sure realistically that is something we can do.”
Holder continued by saying there would be agreements on the popular-vote outcomes for state-level offices vs. the popular vote for national offices.
The conversation concluded with the panel emphasizing to take the early voting options.
Tetreault summed it up by stating, “Voting rights are not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. They are an American issue.”
To view the Ford’s Theatre “Cabinet Conversations” series, go to https://www.fords.org