Obstacles vs. apathy in holding back turnout in communities of color
We can’t let the hurdles keep us from showing up
“I HAVE SAID this before, and I will say it again – the vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.” — John Lewis, 2019
Spoken by the late, great congressman from Georgia nearly a year before his passing and following decades of intense, often dangerous, and deeply impactful struggle for social justice, this statement was delivered as a call to action among people of color, human rights activists, and those seeking fairness and equality for their fellow Americans. When considering our nation’s current state of affairs, Congressman Lewis’s words carry an even more profoundly prescient weight, spoken well ahead of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the murder of Ahmaud Abery, and the national wave of protests which ignited from them and continue as activists clash with both police and members of white supremacist groups emboldened and supported by the current administration, which is itself roiling from its shameful mishandling a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Americans, including an horrifically disproportionate number of black and brown people.
With this bleak backdrop heading into the final hours before what many have agreed is the most important presidential election in recent times, common wisdom would suggest that an overwhelming majority of affected people would turn out to wield that “most powerful nonviolent tool.” So, why is there so much concern about the potential for lower voter turnout in communities of color, particularly among Black and Latino men?
A good portion of the answer lies in the results of the 2016 presidential election, when, for the first time in 20 years, the nation saw a drop in the turnout rate for black voters. According to a Pew Research Center study, the drop was most pronounced among black men, with 64 percent of black women reporting that they voted, compared to 54 percent of black men.
Certainly, an argument can be made that some aspect of apathy has played into this decline in voter participation, with residents in communities of color asking why they should participate in a system that continues to be rigged against them and offers few candidates who actually represent their interests.
But it is far more likely that it is the system itself that has most significantly impacted the vote in communities of color with a multitude of voter suppression techniques employed to undercut black and Latino participation. For some in predominantly black and brown communities, and in low-income areas, voters run a tiresome gauntlet between gerrymandering to favor the election of white, conservative candidates by “packing” and “cracking” districts to dilute the power of people of color; the intentional and illegal purging of people of color from the voting rolls with unconstitutional “use it or lose it” laws; “exact match” voter ID laws that disproportionately target people of color and those in low-income areas; the continuing assault on Voting Rights Act protections, including the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder; the arbitrary relocation or closure of polling locations in communities of color; limited voting hours; voter intimidation; and a host of other tactics.
Pouring the cement over this brick wall of voter suppression is the denial of the right to vote for those returning to society post-incarceration. Estimates by the ACLU show that approximately 5.9 million Americans with felony and, in several states, misdemeanor convictions are prevented from voting. According to statistics provided by the NAACP, blacks and Hispanics – who account for just 32 percent of the US population – make up more than 56 percent of the nation’s prison population.
So, what can we as citizens do to restore and ensure equality, fairness and, most importantly, faith in our system of voting? For starters, we need to establish truly non-partisan independent redistricting commissions; standardize the process for voting across the country; make “vote by mail” available to all American citizens in every election; put an end to discriminatory voter ID and “use it or lose it” laws; provide appropriate language translation materials and services; restore the right to vote for all returning citizens across the country; and make Election Day a holiday of national service.But the most crucial first step that we need to take as a nation, and particularly in communities of color, is to engage in a little bit of what Congressman Lewis used to call “good trouble” and “wield that most powerful non-violent tool that we have” by coming out to vote this election season.
Steven W. Tompkins is the sheriff of Suffolk County, Lee Pelton is the president of Emerson College, and Michael Curry is a current member of the National NAACP board of directors and the immediate past president of the Boston branch of the NAACP.