Excerpt of Remarks to the Voter Education Project Leadership in Atlanta, Georgia
...Whenever a government prescribed freedom as a basic premise, inevitably the strong overcame the weak. And whenever a government ruled that equality of opportunity was a part of a societal life structure, it had to do it by domineering and taking away the freedom of people to strive to better themselves. A fumbling, struggling—often mistaken—progress. And I think we are getting closer and closer to the proposition that people can be free and also have a chance for equality. If we do it, and I believe we can, it will be the first time in recorded history.
I was elected to the Georgia Senate, my first elective office, in 1962. That was the year the Voters Education Project was organized—1962. One of the first bills on which I had to vote—from a very conservative deep southwest Georgia county—was to eliminate the notorious "thirty questions" that decided whether or not a Georgian could vote. A white person was given a test on moral character and, of course, very seldom failed. But a black person who came to the same voter registrar was asked 30 questions. And no one in this room could have answered those questions.
And I remember getting up at the Georgia Senate—afraid of the consequences back home—to make a speech for the elimination of tfiat obstacle to the right to vote. And one of my opponents in the debate got up and said, "So many of these people who want to vote are ignorant How do they know which is the best candidate in the local elections?" And my response was that a black man sitting on the curb outside of the Americus, Georgia, Sumter County Courthouse, could perhaps have been pushed off by the local sheriff, would be better able to judge who would be a better sheriff than two college professors at Georgia Southwestern College.
We still haven't made enough progress. It is true that in 1962 there were no black legislators in the South. Now there are 95. And even 10 years ago, in 1966, there were 200 black elected officials in the South. Now, there are 2,000. But that has not yet been the realization of our citizens' hopes and dreams nor a demonstration of the correction of years and decades and generations of racial discrimination. We've got a long way to go and it can't be done with a dormant, acquiescent acceptance of a change in the law. It's got to be done with an aggressive, fervent commitment through corrective action, through recruitment, through active registration, through education, through welcoming, to get people who have been excluded from the political process to be part of our nation's life. Too often decisions are made by those who are powerful, and educated, and rich, and influential, and articulate, and socially prominent. And even when their hearts are in the right place, and they really want to do a good job of dealing fairly with people, they can't understand the special problems of those who are rural, uneducated, who have some physical or mental defect, who are old, who happen to be black, who can't speak English well, who are timid and inarticulate and who don't know even what their rights might be.
So we'll never have justice in this country, which we all would like to see, until we have full participation in the political processes for all our people— rich and poor, educated and ignorant, powerful and weak, articulate and timid. That's a challenge for us. Everyone in this room, without exception, can understand what's best for us. If we're wrong, we speak out. We know where to go. We vote regularly. We had no trouble registering to vote.
But there are many who look to us for leadership, who don't yet see a realization of the promise that exists in the heart and mind of our people. I think the nation's consciousness has been stirred by some of the great leaders that have been chosen in this country in die electoral process.
Here in the Fifth District, where we are now, with Congressman Andrew Young. In the last election, Harold Ford in Memphis, Tennessee. And Barbara Jordan from Texas, and many others. Mayors, county commissioners, sheriffs. Obviously we've made some progress. And it's given us a new lease on life. We're very proud of it.
But we ought not to be satisfied. I might point out that this is not just a black, southern Democratic type of project. There are many people throughout the country who still feel the exclusion that's either deliberate or accepted. We've got 4 million Spanish-speaking Americans who've never registered to vote. And they've seen the high publicity that has accrued to black leaders, civil rights acts; they feel left out. There are many other white ethnic groups who in the past have not felt they were part of our nation's political process. We ought not to be satisfied just to see the great changes made in the South because of these courageous leaders who preceded most of us and who had courage that we sometimes lacked.
We look at other countries to see how they vote. In the Communist countries, 100 percent—of course they've only got one candidate for whom to vote. But in West Germany, in the last election, 1972, a free society, 91 percent of all the eligible voters went to the polls. In France, 88 percent; Italy, 80 percent; Great Britain, 80 percent.
In our country, in 1876, 80 percent of those who were legally entitled to vote were registered and voted. But then along came a series of registration laws to determine the qualifications of someone who wanted to have a part in shaping one's own government, and having a part in determining one's own future life and the destiny of one's own child. In 1920 this started— state registration laws. And we've dropped from 80 percent to 48 percent. And now, of all those eligible to vote, of all those eligible to even be registered to vote, only 47 percent are registered.
I sensed this when I campaigned in 1970 for governor. My wife and I shook hands with about 600,000 Georgians. More than half the total number who actually ever vote. And toward the end of the campaign, after all those handshakes, it became easy for me as I grasped someone's hand and looked in their eyes, to decide whether they were going to vote for me or not. And if I knew they would not, there were options; they were either going to vote for my opponent, or they were not registered to vote.
After I was elected with the help of a lot of high school students—even grammar school students, college students—it became obvious to me that Georgia, who had given 18 year-olds voting rights in 1945, had deliberately excluded young people from the registration process.
So I asked two high school students to travel around Georgia in a quiet and unpublicized way. Now they went to voter registration offices to find out what hours the registrars were available to perform their duties. In several counties the registrars office was opened 1 hour per week. One hour per week. So we passed a law in Georgia, one of the first that was passed after I became governor, deputizing as voter registration officers every high school principal in the state. And now we are just going through our fifth year when young people who reach the age of 17/a years old are registered to vote in the classroom.
I've worked since 1974 when I was the National Chairman of the Democratic Party Campaign Committee for the whole country, to get postcard registration. Texas, a very conservative state, has had it for 25 years. And it's still bogged down in the Congress with the constant threat of a Presidential veto and it won't pass this year. A lot of people say it's too complicated, a lot of people say it costs too much. A lot of people say it's just not practical.
When I came here for the first VEP banquet, I made a brief speech. Nobody paid much attention to it But for the first time I called for universal voter registration, in May of 1974. In December of 1974 I announced that I was candidate for President of the United States. And I made a fairly brief speech to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. and one of the things I called for was universal voter registration. Last month, I made an acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden, and one of the things that was right in the heart of my speech was a call for universal voter registration. If I'm elected President, I want to put John Lewis out of business.
I've talked to a lot of Members of Congress who have been adamant in their opposition to postcard registration. And they have told me, "Governor, if we can just pass a law next year that eliminates the red tape, eliminates the cost, eliminates a new bureaucracy, and gets people registered to vote, FH support it." So one of the commitments I make to you is that whether I'm elected or not I'm going to work hard to see that we have a bill passed in Washington, a very simple bill, that says when somebody is 18 years old and a citizen of the United States, that they're registered to vote.
I believe that this single, simple law which could be written in one paragraph could almost transform in a beneficial way the politics of our country. And the goal for which Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his life. And the goal for which Andy Young and John Lewis were beaten and imprisoned, which is often ignored, still many years later, can be realized. I see no reason why a citizen of our country should have to go through a legal process to be given a chance to vote. And I believe this is something we can set for ourselves. In the meantime, let's all join John Lewis and others and give our people a chance to answer a question that they began to ask 15 or 20 years ago— "Would you please let me vote."
Jimmy Carter, Excerpt of Remarks to the Voter Education Project Leadership in Atlanta, Georgia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347648