Karen Rutherford - Making It Harder For Poor People, Black People and College Students to Vote

Karen Rutherford, director of Career services at Benedict College, historically black college in Columbia, SC

I was born at Tuskegee, Alabama. I just remember as a young person, the courthouse downtown, where we seldom went anyway. But when you did go to get your drivers’ license or you went to try to vote, the obstacles that were put in front of the older people to achieve the right to vote, which should have been their right to vote anyway. Sometimes they had to do things like write certain verses in the Constitution or do things that anyone would be unable to do. Then when they failed, they failed to be able to vote.

Of course, I [also] grew up in a city where they gerrymandered the black people out of the city limits, so they could not vote in certain elections. So I saw firsthand a lot of discrimination that was done. That meant your only voice was the voice you had when you went to the polls.

I found when I got involved [in voter registration], all these things I had witnessed growing up, all of the discrimination I had seen in that little town in AL, were still here in this bigger town in this campus community. And that the same type of people just came back and were still fighting, trying to keep us from voting.

I started helping with the voter registration process [at Benedict College] six or seven years ago. We instruct the seminar instructors how to talk students about the need to vote, the importance of voting and the issues. We tell them what they need to be looking for, and the types of people that they need to be interested in as students. What’s being presented in Washington, what’s being presented in local legislation.

The things we try to stress to students here at the college, in terms of making them want to get out and vote, are things that are going to affect them: what’s going to affect your pocket, what’s going to affect you with trying to deal with your financial aid, your student loan. Who’s going to cut back on your student loans, and who’s going to be sensitive to the needs of historically black colleges and universities as a whole, in terms of giving funding for them? We have to look at things that will make them want to get up out of the bed in the morning and not only go out to eat, but go to vote.

There are things that are important to black folks. I think because we came up differently, we fought for the right to vote differently, our relatives and our ancestors and people in our background have been impacted by someone taking away that right to vote.

Here it is 2012, and I mean, there is no way to describe that bill [South Carolina’s voter ID bill] except to say that it is trying to prevent people from registering to vote and voting. We were not having problems before. So why would this thing be absolutely necessary except to that end? 

I have students saying ‘I don’t want to vote, it doesn’t count, my vote doesn’t count.’ And I have to take them aside and try to convince them that their vote does count. And here we have legislative groups, governors coming forth saying we don’t want you to vote, your vote doesn’t count and we don’t want you involved in the voting process as college students. 

Now, I could not understand that, I could not understand people that would not want you to vote. Why would you be trying to change laws, and make it more complicated for poor people, and black people and college students to vote? 

You see that kind of thing and you go, it’s not over, it’s not over. It may never be over. And I’ve got to keep fighting to do this.


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