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crystal howell

Crystal Howell

In the summer of 2012, I left my position as a public school teacher in the coalfields of West Virginia and began teaching and living with my new husband in Morgantown, just an hour south of Pittsburgh and home to West Virginia University.

That fall, when I attempted to vote early in my new precinct, I discovered that my voter registration had not been processed when I renewed my driver’s license with my new name and address. Angry and distraught at the prospect of being disenfranchised, I contacted the office of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Manchin’s staff immediately got to work tracking down where my registration had gone awry. Staffers stayed in touch with me as they traced my registration documents from the critically congested regional Division of Motor Vehicles office where I had gotten my new driver’s license to my local county courthouse. My and numerous other citizens’ voter registrations, they discovered, had not been processed correctly.

Manchin’s staff worked with local election officials, as well as the commissioner of the DMV, to correct the breakdown in the motor-voter registration process and then helped me cast a provisional ballot on Election Day. I was and remain grateful for Manchin and his staff’s swift and persistent action to help me and the hundreds of other West Virginians who have registered via the DMV since then to exercise our right to vote.

In recent weeks, however, the senator who helped me fight for my right to vote is nowhere to be found. Instead of fighting for “one person, one vote,” today’s Manchin seems willing to sacrifice even the most sacred elements of our democracy on the altar of bipartisanship.

Manchin has proven himself willing to stand up for causes he believes in, even if unpopular among his constituents. He has consistently supported the Affordable Care Act and voted against attempts to repeal it, despite GOP politicians’ “Obummercare” rhetoric. His defense of commonsense gun regulations also is well known (as is the way the filibuster thwarted the 2013 gun reform legislation he co-sponsored). Last week, he expressed support for President Joe Biden’s recent executive actions tightening regulations related to homemade “ghost guns.”

It is especially disturbing, then, that Manchin refuses to join his fellow Democrats in uncompromising support of the For the People Act. There are some causes more important than consensus. That Manchin does not regard citizens’ right to vote as one such cause is appalling, and his April 7 op-ed rejecting any weakening of the filibuster — even to protect voters’ rights — indicates, at best, a laughable naiveté regarding Republicans’ willingness to bend and, at worst, a chilling misunderstanding of and disrespect for our democratic foundations.

I now live and work in the other Virginia, so Manchin is no longer technically my senator. But my research on teacher organizing frequently takes me back home, as do visits to my mother, grandmothers and many other friends and family members. And, like many folks born in the Mountain State, there is a part of me that will always be a West Virginian, that will always hold dear the words montani semper liberi: Mountaineers are always free.

But today, the freedom of West Virginians and millions more Americans is in jeopardy, threatened by GOP-led state legislatures intent on making it as difficult as possible for Americans of color and Americans living in poverty to vote (and denying representation to the residents of Washington, D.C., altogether).

Langston Hughes wrote, “Democracy will not come/Today, this year/Nor ever/ Through compromise and fear.”

Today is not a day for compromise, Senator Manchin. Today is a day to fight: For my right to vote, like you did in 2012. For West Virginians’ right to vote. For all Americans’ right to vote.

Crystal D. Howell was born and raised in West Virginia and is now an assistant professor of education at Randolph College, in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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