This piece was originally published by Next100, a startup think tank powered by The Century Foundation and created for—and by—the next generation of policy leaders.
Does voting matter?
The short answer is: absolutely! Voting is a human right that helps to ensure your voice is heard, and that your needs are included in efforts to construct a government that accurately reflects your values. Each of the authors of this article, currently or in the past, has not had that right because of legal disenfranchisement. As we’ve explored the importance of voting, we’ve recognized that the challenges to engaging in this civic duty extend well beyond being legally barred from doing so. We also live the reality that there are multiple ways to commit to changemaking which expand beyond voting. Yet we cannot help but recognize that informed and consistent voting can be a quick and sure way to make immediate headway towards more inclusive policy and government accountability.
Today’s uprisings for Black lives across the United States following the killing of George Floyd and the struggle to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control have made it clear that numerous systemic changes in our laws and policies are vital to the future of our democracy. Furthermore, the recent passing of congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, and during an election year no less, reminds us of the long-fought battle to expand voting rights and the many ways in which we are not yet there. In his final words to the United States, Lewis took the time to remind us that, “voting and participating in the democratic process are key.” Although it is far from the endgame, having the ability to elect the people who could best reflect our needs and concerns is a necessary starting point towards policies that better support our communities and broaden our access to the opportunities and resources we need to thrive.
Why It’s So Hard for Us to Vote
But let’s not lose the nuance of the many complications involved in, and simultaneously dismissed by, campaigns that simply say, “Go vote.” There are active ways in which people are kept from voting, all of which overwhelmingly affect low-income Black and Brown communities.
Legal Disenfranchisement and Its Impact
Today, more than six million Americans are legally restricted from voting in federal elections because of felony disenfranchisement. Many more people within the country are unable to vote due to a variety of factors, ranging from being a U.S. citizen living in a U.S. territory, to being a non-citizen regardless of the length of time you’ve lived in the United States, to having certain mental health conditions. All of these reasons disproportionately impact low-income communities of color.
For many people who can’t vote, every time we approach a grocery store with a voter registration drive—a kind of activism we believe is necessary to increasing civic engagement—it feels like a gut punch. Do we out ourselves and explain that we’re not registered because we’re ineligible to vote?
The three of us are among the millions who have at some point been denied the right to vote. So are our families and communities. We’ve seen firsthand how not being able to vote can make people disinterested in and disillusioned by the political process. Not only does the inability to vote further stigmatize entire classes of people: it also makes disenfranchised individuals question the worth of their perspective and gives license to the prejudicial views of others. For many people who can’t vote, every time we approach a grocery store with a voter registration drive—a kind of activism we believe is necessary to increasing civic engagement—it feels like a gut punch. Do we out ourselves and explain that we’re not registered because we’re ineligible to vote? How will the volunteer react, once they realize that we are of no value to their efforts?
Why should a candidate visit a prison of 1,000 inmates ineligible to vote when they could speak to a church or senior center of 100 who can? Why should politicians support permanent residents and other noncitizen immigrants when they won’t get “credit” at the polls?
This is particularly true when we see how disenfranchisement works against communities of color systemically. Not only do individuals feel disempowered; their opinions and priorities actually go unheard. What incentives do lawmakers have to appeal to or work on behalf of immigrants or the formerly incarcerated? Why should a candidate visit a prison of 1,000 inmates ineligible to vote when they could speak to a church or senior center of 100 who can? Why should politicians support permanent residents and other noncitizen immigrants when they won’t get “credit” at the polls? It’s not just that lawmakers don’t speak to our issues or vie for our support; it’s that the resulting policies are formed without our input and without regard for the people most affected by those policies, thus reinforcing a cycle of inequality.
Disenfranchisement by Lack of Information
We know that even when policy makes progress towards ensuring the vote is representative of each community, widespread misinformation about disenfranchisement can stop people from actually getting out and voting. While not legally disenfranchising, such misinformation has the same result. For example, in eighteen states and Washington, D.C., the formerly incarcerated either never lose their voting rights or have their voting rights restored automatically after they are released from prison. A 2005 Sentencing Project study, which surveyed formerly incarcerated individuals in Connecticut, New York, and Ohio, showed that nearly 50 percent of the respondents were either misinformed or unclear about their right to vote. A 2014 study exploring voter registration and turnout data for the formerly incarcerated in Iowa, Rhode Island, and Maine showed that only 12.1 percent of individuals discharged from a felony sentence in Maine voted in the 2012 elections, even though formerly incarcerated people in the state never lose the right to vote. Some municipalities, including ten towns in Maryland, allow their non-citizen residents to vote in local elections. And yet, despite non-citizens having access to local elections within certain municipalities in Maryland, few actually register and then show up to vote. For example, in Takoma Park, an average of 39 out of 2,900, or about 1 percent of non-citizens, have actually shown up to vote in local elections since 1993.
What does having the right to vote matter when we—including those of us who are personally impacted—have internalized that those who are formerly incarcerated or who are non-citizens can’t vote, and are never informed otherwise? With get-out-the-vote campaigns so common nationwide during election season, why do so few do the work of informing people like us of our rights?
These misleading narratives have to be disrupted, and wherever local realities allow non-citizens to vote in local elections and/or restore the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, proactive measures need to be taken to inform us of what we’ve been taught to assume we can’t have. People should not be missing out on voting because they’ve been told they cannot vote, or even for simply having the impression that they can’t. No one should be finding out, fifteen years after being released from prison, that they have been eligible to vote all along, and therefore have missed out on fifteen years of opportunities to influence the policies governing the community in which they live.
An eye has to be kept towards implementation of any voting rights restoration initiatives, and it has to be done correctly, because casting a vote when ineligible, even unintentionally, is a felony. What are states and local communities doing to inform and engage potential new voters? What’s the registration process like? Is that process manageable and accessible, or is it confusing, expensive, impossible, and possibly unconstitutional?
Disenfranchisement by Voter Suppression
Millions more would-be voters are de-facto disenfranchised, due to barriers such as restrictive voter ID laws, restrictive voter registration processes, the purging of voter rolls, gerrymandering, and the closing of polls. Just like with more direct forms of disenfranchisement, these issues overwhelmingly show up in communities of color, particularly Black communities, a fact which underscores the structurally racist factors at play. In 2018, 70 percent of the voter registrations on hold in Georgia were for Black individuals. Earlier this year, voters seeking to cast their ballot within majority–minority counties in that same state faced four-hour lines, defective voting machines, and insufficient ballots. Seven-hundred and fifty polls have been closed across the state of Texas since 2012, and to no one’s surprise, the fifty counties experiencing the greatest growth in Black and Latinx residents accounted for 72 percent, or 542, of those closures, compared to the 4.5 percent, or thirty-four closures, in the fifty counties with the least growth in the Black and Latinx population. With such active voter suppression, voting has become an act of resistance.
Disengagement Will Not Bring Us Greater Power
When systems actively ostracize us, sometimes disengaging from civic duties feels like a method of reclaiming agency. Why engage with and contribute to a system that continuously disregards our humanity? Why show up for a system where no candidate speaks to your needs, concerns, or interests? However, while reclaiming agency is both needed and necessary, retreat from civic life has not proven to be a fruitful way of doing so. In fact, turning away from voting results in further harm to our communities. It sends a message to politicians that they do not have to answer to certain communities, because they’re not saying anything anyway. Voting is relatively the quickest way to hold politicians accountable, even when it is harder to vote in low-income and segregated communities of color.
While reclaiming agency is both needed and necessary, retreat from civic life has not proven to be a fruitful way of doing so.
Perhaps it is harder because politicians do not want to hear from those communities, because they know their continued success and claim to power depends on the continued oppression and exclusion of the people within them. They know that to answer to those communities and invest the resources that their members need to thrive would require a hard look at the inequity amassed under their leadership. That alone should be fuel for engagement at the polls. Furthermore, increased voter engagement earlier in the election process—in primaries, when the candidates are decided—sustains momentum for the leaders within these communities whose platforms answer to historic underrepresentation. Voter support and engagement early on allows them to continue their bid for office.
Just as those seeking an elected position have the responsibility to engage with those within their jurisdiction and answer to their needs, those who can vote have the duty of showing up and showing out for the person with the platform that best cares for their community. If you can vote but do not necessarily feel excited to, think about the people in your community who cannot vote. Maybe the champion necessary to push policies for disenfranchised communities to thrive is not yet on the ballot. But who on the ballot will do them the least harm? Vote for them in heart and mind, and then go out and support them in action. This way, you can be part of the leadership you believe is truly necessary for change.
Showing Up and Getting Involved ANYWAY
Disillusionment and disinterest need not be the only response to exclusion: instead, it can propel people to get in the arena and work to change the system that disenfranchised them in the first place. We see the latter across the country. The successful fight to pass Amendment 4 in Florida, for example, which restored the voting rights of 1.4 million people with criminal records, was led by Desmond Meade, someone with such a record himself. Furthermore, undocumented individuals are at the forefront of the immigration reform movement, often at significant risk to their safety and well-being. And young people—many of whom can’t yet vote—are leading the fight against racial injustice and climate change, because in these issues, their futures are at stake.
Similarly, the three of us have committed our lives to the project of democracy, working day in and day out to change policies that affect us and our communities. Whether it’s criminal “justice” reform: reforming the 44,000 laws that serve as perpetual punishment for individuals after their terms are served by limiting their access to employment, education, housing, and more; or immigration reform: raising awareness about the many positive contributions that immigrants make to our communities, the economy, and our country; or advocating for the rights of students of immigrant backgrounds, their access to quality education, and increased protections for their families, we’ve made the choice to reclaim by engaging as fully as we can.
Through our lived experiences of being denied the right to vote, we’ve learned that advocacy is a much more potent force than apathy or antipathy. Being, or having been, disenfranchised is what fuels us to take action. We know that being disenfranchised can’t keep us, and should not keep anyone, from working towards making our democracy stronger every day of the year. We can still raise our voices, and work to make America reach its full potential. And to that end, we can help ensure that our communities are aware of the policies regarding their right to vote.
We will not deny it—working in policy has made us acutely aware of how important voting is, both how easily it can be taken for granted, and how damaging it is when one doesn’t exercise their right.
We will not deny it—working in policy has made us acutely aware of how important voting is, both how easily it can be taken for granted, and how damaging it is when one doesn’t exercise their right. U.S. voter turnout is abysmal: only one in two eligible Americans typically participate in presidential elections. What’s more, the voting population is not representative of the population as a whole. The groups most likely to vote tend to be white, older, more educated, and higher income, which skews not only electoral outcomes but policy outcomes. Voting should be a human right, but unfortunately, both being legally registered to vote and having the opportunity to engage in the process is currently a privilege. For those with the privilege, you have to exercise it. As Pew’s survey of the 2016 electorate showed, it was nonvoters that handed Trump the presidency. For progressives to have a shot at defeating him in 2020, many more people who can vote—particularly those who are young, low-income, and underrepresented—must vote.
A Meaningful Kind of Resistance
If America is to truly live up to its ideals, we must reverse the decades’ long assault on voting and make it significantly easier for more people to vote. The efforts currently underway to abolish the electoral college, enact automatic and same-day voter registration, allow early and at-home voting, and eliminate gerrymandering are all positive, promising steps forward. Equally important, we must address the policies that actively exclude large segments of our population. We must also look beyond voter drives. We need campaigns educating people on who can and should register to vote and how they can do it. We need campaigns that engage people on the issues at stake and that refuse to put any politician on a pedestal: these voters, we can attest, want not idols, but cold, hard facts and paths towards solutions.
As pointed out by Deborah Kwon with GenRise Media, voting is harm reduction. It won’t solve everything, and it isn’t the only thing that’s needed; but it does make an impact, and so it shouldn’t be a privilege. Voting should be a right, and exercising it should come without any barriers. Until we get there, to those who have the right to vote: please take the time to inform yourself of the voting process to make sure you’re able to participate. Are you registered? Do you know where and how to vote? Are you prepared for what will be on the ballot? If you encounter difficulties at the poll, are you equipped with knowledge of your voting rights?
The November election is gearing up to be unlike any other we have seen in the history of this country, taking place as it will during a global pandemic, when many people may feel unsafe to show up at the polls and will opt to vote by mail; and just as the United States Postal Service has become the center of a political firestorm and stands severely underfunded. These circumstances mean that mail-in votes will need to be cast no later than October 27 in order to be counted, and perhaps earlier, especially in the thirty-two states that do not accept mail-in ballots that arrive after Election Day. It’s not just about federal elections either—the local elections matter just as much, if not more. It’s critical that the elected officials who develop laws and policies are held accountable to the people within their jurisdictions. If the members of underrepresented communities who can vote do not show up to do it, our communities will continue being systemically set back because of policy crafted by elected officials who don’t care for our interests.