By Risa Brown, National Data and Targeting Director, Faith in Action
Voting is one of the most sacred responsibilities we have as Americans. On November 3, 2020, we will have the opportunity to seize our power as citizens and change the course of history. Even so, every election should inspire us to make our voices heard.
However, enthusiasm for participation in the political process has fallen victim to a range of measures designed to disenfranchise the American people, especially targeting communities that are traditionally disadvantaged and discriminated against. The purging of voter rolls and so-called “voter access laws” are the latest manifestation of the same white supremacist legacy that brought literacy tests to voter registration in the South (only ended by the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Right now, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is trying to create barriers like fees and fines – a modern day poll tax – for returning citizens that have been granted the right to vote in a state constitutional amendment.
These policies today make it so that enthusiasm and eligibility for voting alone is not enough to ensure that the American people can access their rights and hold their representatives in government accountable.
At the same time, we have also been targeted by a long con, a systemic deception that has convinced us our voices don’t matter. How many times have you heard that all the candidates are really the same, or that because of the electoral college your vote in a solidly blue or red state doesn’t matter? Make no mistake, this narrative is malicious and intentional, designed to discourage participation by those who would disrupt the status quo with their electoral choices. It nudges people to not care about the state and local elections that will directly impact their lives. And it keeps vulnerable communities from standing up for what they need because they are led to believe that no government representative will ever stand with them. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And because of both malign policies and this dangerous narrative of powerlessness, voter turnout in this country lags behind our peer nations around the world in every election. In 2016, only about 55.5% of the voting age population participated in the presidential election, leaving nearly 92 million eligible American voters without a voice. And turnout is historically lower in midterm and state and local elections. What can be done to reverse this trend and reclaim our democracy?
That’s where National Voter Registration Day came in. At first glance, it may have seemed like just another feel-good note on the calendar that doesn’t get you a day off of work. But if you considered that registering to vote is the entry point to wielding your power as a citizen of the United States, it became clear that this was no ordinary day.
Recently on National Voter Registration Day volunteers around the country conducted voter registration outreach in their own communities – at work, at school, and on their block with their neighbors. The conversation also moved online where we connected our Facebook friends and Twitter followers to resources about how to get registered in their state of residence and stay informed about elections. As we head toward 2020, Faith in Action is working to flip the formula on voter engagement by engaging communities on the issues that matter to them most. Our colleagues will continue to build enduring power for people of color and working families that translates into more freedom, less fear and more opportunity to thrive. This new formula is not ambivalent; it is a bold and conscious set of choices to do our political work differently that is bringing those on the margins of our democracy to the center.
Over the last thirteen years I’ve registered voters in a variety of communities: on the streets of Newark and in the suburbs of Los Angeles, in Black, Latinx, AAPI neighborhoods. I’ve registered young people getting ready to graduate from high school and retirees who have been anchors in their communities for decades. Regardless of where I worked, there was always a story about how people were removed from the vote. It was heartbreaking to hear how people didn’t know they could register to vote. Some people thought they were registered and I had to tell them they weren’t. So many communities are disenfranchised from taking the most basic and most impactful way to change their communities: voting.
As Americans, we have so much to be proud of. But we also have to deal with a complex legacy of power dynamics around race, gender, and economic status that should not dictate our nation’s future. The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, wasn’t ratified until 1920, so for more than half our nation’s history women have been institutionally silenced in politics and government. The 26th Amendment, which officially lowered the national voting age to 18, wasn’t ratified until 1971 when young men were being drafted to fight in Vietnam without having a say over the policies and politicians sending them there.
This history makes us stronger because we know the power of lifting up our voices to right wrongs and demand change. Take a moment today to check your registration status or reach out to a friend or family member to make sure they know how to register – and what’s at stake. Next year’s presidential election depends on it.