We need to huddle about voter suppression and voter engagement, respectfully.
The United State of America’s 2020 General Elections have most concluded. New voters, young voters and voters of color helped make history by engaging in historic voter turnout, unseating Donald Trump, and electing Senator Kamala Harris to be the first woman (who is also Black, South Asian and a child of Immigrants) as our Vice President-Elect. While this election yielded some amazing results, there are two serious barriers to voting that campaigns and parties need to address for all future elections: voter suppression and ineffective voter mobilization, especially as it relates to young Black voters.
Voter Suppression is any strategy that attempts to influence elections by discouraging certain groups from engaging. Some of the traditional tactics include poll taxes, the three-fifth compromise and limiting access to polling locations. Now, voter suppression is not new. African Americans, Women and other minorities have historically faced barriers to the ballot box. As we fast forward to today, contemporary suppression looks like traditional methods combined with the use of Social media algorithms, strict voter ID laws, and even widespread misinformation through the media.
Typically, campaigns, political parties and operatives push voter registration and mass mobilization to fight suppression, but as we saw in 2016, the electoral college delivered results that were different from the popular vote. The 2016 election was the first President Election that happened after the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and it’s clear that this decision laid groundwork towards even more serious suppression. After this decision, state legislatures across the country became more conservative and began passing laws to make it harder for people to vote. In addition to that, we now know that social media algorithms and targeted ads played a role in the 2016 election results. Campaigns are able to manipulate data to groom and sway political opinions. Whether its targeted misinformation, swaying opinions or even encouraging people to disengage from the voting process altogether, social media manipulation in politics is too important to ignore.
In addition to the issue of voter suppression, voter mobilization tactics could use some work. Voter mobilization at its core is a plan of action to get voters, and non-voters that could be voters, excited to cast their ballot.
We are in the middle of a global uprising, a global pandemic and a fight for what could be a democracy. All of these things will have a serious effect on how voters turn out and how they can be engaged. This, coupled with voter suppression should be a huge concern for anyone that wants to turn out young black voters. Instead of focusing on developing creative and tangible solutions to these special set of problems, there is a huge campaign to shame and/or guilt people passed off as authentic engagement.
These attempts at mobilizing voters are not new. Although black folks, especially black women, vote and engage in political processes at higher percentages than any other group, trusted organizations and leaders have relied on shaming folks into voting. Things like “Elections have consequences’’, “Every Vote Counts”, “Vote or DIE” and “Vote like your life depends on it” put the responsibility on the individual without holding our system and candidates accountable for their lack of authentic engagement and relationship building in our communities. Also, the specific attempt to engage black folks by saying things like “Our ancestors died for our right to vote” erase the diverse ways that our communities already engage and the role of things like voter suppression and lack of engagement hinder higher turnout. Recently there have been graphics circulating that highlight the amount of votes that Hillary Clinton lost in key states that the amount of black people that “didn’t” vote in those same states. While I understand that the goal was to highlight how black folks can make a difference in this election, these graphics ignore that the pressure is placed on black voters to correct the voting record of the majority of white americans. This also ignores the fact that the expectation is with black voters to push through intentional suppression and engage each other without any serious investments from candidates or parties.
In addition to these concerns, I also worry that those of us that want as many folks to be able to vote as possible are not taking the time to really address the concerns of young black voters. This demographic has seen the worst economy, racial injustice and a mishandled pandemic. This demographic is fed up, they feel hopeless and feel as if things will not get better under our current electoral system. While many young black voters are turning out in record numbers, there is a large portion that truly believe their vote doesn’t matter, and that nothing will change and that we will get the same ol’ same ol’ regardless of who is elected. These voices are usually lectured about the power of the vote in general terms, told that the state of our country is because of a lack of voting, and are told that’s a way to change our community on a massive scale, but that is where folks make a huge mistake.
Now, as a voter, I do believe that voting matters and it’s an important tool that allows us to have some say over what our leaders do, but the issue runs much bigger than the ballot box. When we refuse to be honest about the limits of voting, we only create more voter apathy. People that are sold a dream about a better community that can be achieved by participating in democracy by voting then do not see the results makes future political engagement tough. We have to place the blame where it belongs, which is usually on capitalism and white dominant culture.
As we head into numerous state and local elections, we must address the ways that we glorify suppression and tend to overlook the ways that voters are manipulated into making certain decisions. Communities of color, especially black voters, are waiting in line to vote for hours at a time and risking their lives to vote. While it’s commendable that folks are so committed to casting their vote, this should not be our normal voting process. We are in a fight for our lives and the most that the left can offer is to push through and vote anyway? How does an individual that is experiencing this push through in cases of a ballot being thrown away? Or not receiving a ballot at all? Or voter purging? Or violence at the election booth? There has to be a better response to these intentional attacks on the right to vote.
Essentially, candidates and parties need to make the case for our communities. Third party voters, “protest voters” aka abstaining from voting and non voters are not to blame for the 2016 election results, or any results for that matter. These things have always taken place. What made a huge difference is the entitlement to the black vote, the lack of concern for voter suppression and voter engagement.
Moving forward, candidates and parties must fight voter suppression and develop messaging and strategy that is catered to the community that they are trying to reach. There are a few ways this can be done. There needs to be an overhaul of any laws that restrict the right to vote, like strict voter ID laws. Also, voter education, especially civics in school, has to be a part of any effort to expand access to the political process. Social media platforms have to hold users accountable for their role in voter suppression, intimidation and misinformation. Overall, the responsibility is on our systems to do better. And those of us in positions of power have to be a part of holding our systems accountable!