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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Registering to vote the hard way

The petty attempt by Republicans in North Carolina to retaliate against left-leaning college students reminds me of my own difficulty in registering to vote in 1972 as a resident of Montgomery, Ala. The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had just set the national voting age to 18 -- and appropriately so, given how many Americans of age 18, 19, and 20 had become casualties of combat in Vietnam.

My 18th birthday would be in October, two weeks before the general election. I was a freshman at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, 175 miles away, and planned to vote by absentee ballot. Before leaving Montgomery in mid-September for the fall quarter, I went to the county courthouse to register -- but I was denied on grounds that I wasn't yet 18.

Didn't seem right to me. Having grown up in the environment of state government and having served as a page in the state Senate, I knew the the Capitol like the palm of my hand. I called the office of the Attorney General of Alabama. Did my last name catch the attention of the secretary of Bill Baxley, only 31 years old himself at the time? A cousin of mine was State Auditor, and her office was just down the hall from his. Whatever the reason, my call was taken by an assistant AG whose name I cannot remember. He listened to my story and said he would call the county registrar to straighten them out. Later that day I returned and was allowed to register.

Baxley went on to earn national fame by successfully prosecuting the bomber of a Birmingham church back in 1963. He also wrote an acclaimed "kiss my ass" letter to a white supremacist. But in 1972, the office of the AG meted out a much smaller portion of justice by enabling me to cast my vote for George McGovern.