By Chakena Sims
The Black vote is magical. Just ask United States Senator Doug Jones (D-AL), who won his race in 2017 thanks in large part to support from Black voters across Alabama. Candidates spend a lot of time trying to woo Black voters on all sorts of ideological fronts; conversely, many lawmakers push forth restrictive voting policies that tend to impact Black would-be voters first. It’s been 56 years since the Civil Rights Act and we’re still having this conversation in 2020. Happy Black History Month!
Seriously, despite enormous strides to make voting more accessible, parts of our country still embrace archaic voting laws, or they try to dream up exhaustive and exhausting new ones, many of which disenfranchise Black voting-aged adults at higher rates than their white counterparts. That speaks volumes about the power of the Black voting bloc, and how much white supremacy still lingers in the halls of a government meant to be for the people. All of the people.
I can travel almost 900 miles south from Chicago to Georgia, where Black people are being blatantly removed from voting rolls at staggering rates. Or I can hop on Interstate 94 West to Wisconsin and meet hundreds of Black people that can’t satisfy strict voter-ID requirements. At the federal level, presidential candidates are debating whether incarcerated people should have the right to vote, but the conversation frequently stops short of digging into how the criminal justice system disproportionately imprisons Black people, or how past felonies often skew voting demographics for years to come. The mere thought of having unrestricted access to polls prompts debate, but there’s nothing debatable, nor radical, about doing what’s right.
Every state has its own rules about voting and if you’re not immersed in this stuff for fun — *raises hand* — it can be hard to keep track of all of the regulations in your own state. I often share a story about a Black man named Kevin whom I met while doing voter registration canvassing in Chicago. Kevin was told by his parole officer that he’s unable to vote due to a felony conviction. But here’s a fun fact: Illinois is one of 16 states that allow individuals with felonies to vote upon release. I don’t know his parole officer, nor do I know definitively why they lied to him. Here is what I do know: Kevin is one of potentially thousands of people across the state of Illinois, and millions of people across the country, who are being left out of our democracy. Misinformation is arguably as dangerous as structural barriers, especially when the messenger yields power with the intent to harm. And when that misinformation targets Black people, it can result in catastrophic consequences for communities who desperately need to be heard by their local, state, and federal governments.
Now, onto voter apathy: It’s easy to tell people to vote, but the “how to” and “why” are the real challenges. No matter where I’ve lived — whether Chicago; Detroit, Michigan; or New London, Connecticut — I’ve met people who believe that voting doesn’t matter. I get it: It is hard to feel like your vote is heard in a system that has dismissed it for decades. And while I could respond by telling them, “Our ancestors died for the right to vote,” shaming isn’t a useful tactic to drive turnout. I also realize that schools don’t teach civic education in a uniform manner, and income equality makes it difficult to make ends meet, let alone to show up at the polls come voting day.
To fight all of this, we need to foster conversations rooted in love to bring more Black voices into our democracy. So, how do we foster and protect a voting culture within the Black community despite the persistent barriers in place? It’s important for us to meet our friends, family, and community members where they are and help them connect the dots between voting and community issues.
Many of us are tackling personal issues that appear more immediate and urgent than voting, but plenty of those issues — from a right to housing to healthcare to zoning issues — are things that elected lawmakers have a say in, and even show up on ballots. Finding the why in our vote is key. Finding the why takes time. It takes patience and an empathic ear. Some conversations will require more effort and creativity, but the goals remain the same: normalizing civic engagement and getting us out to vote.
I learned the importance of voting from my grandma. Despite never learning to drive, she always finds a way to the polls. She informs me when her voter registration card arrives in the mail; sets a date of when she’s going to vote, whether it’s Early Voting or Election Day; and calls others to ensure they have a plan. My grandma is enthusiastic about voting — to this day, she, my mom, my uncle, and I travel to our neighborhood voting location every year to cast our ballots together.
The act of voting is a sense of pride for my grandma, but the why is what sustains her efforts. Having to pay co-pays on a fixed income makes her passionate about improving healthcare access; watching her neighborhood decline before her eyes makes her advocate for community investment; and as a former factory worker, she knows the importance of unions, workers’ rights, and fair working conditions. Once we find our why, we can effectively encourage others to vote and hold each other accountable.
Young people are leading the way to increase voter access across the country. We are getting organized and leaning into our collective power to create movements that last. Stacey Abrams may have lost her race in Georgia, but she turned that moment into a movement, one that builds on years of grassroots efforts to stop voter suppression at the source. Young people are tearing down prohibitive and unnecessary barriers to the polls in plenty of states; in Illinois alone, Chicago Votes and other partner organizations have helped pass same-day, automatic, and online voting registration measures, and helped establish the Cook County Jail as a primary voting location. With more organizing, more conversations and quite frankly, better candidate options at the polls, youth voter turnout will meet or exceed that of our grandparents. Mark my word.
Our democracy works best when more voices are included. A representative democracy ensures that Black people can visit the ballot box and choose from leaders that look and think like us, know what our lives are like, and have the best track record to improve our everyday lives. The lovers of democracy, like myself, will continue to fight for all of us. That fight begins one conversation at a time, with lawmakers and family members alike. The right to vote shouldn’t be viewed as “radical,” and casting your ballot with ease shouldn’t feel like a luxury. And eliminating barriers? It’s just the right thing to do.
Chakena Sims is Board President of Chicago Votes Action Fund: a non-partisan, non-profit organization focused on building a more inclusive democracy by putting power in the hands of young Chicagoans.
Over 4 million people will turn 18 between now and the 2020 election. MTV’s +1thevote is encouraging all potential first-time voters to register and vote this November. It’s time to make voting easier to do, and part of the milestones already happening in your life, from prom to graduation to birthdays. It’s a year-long party and +1thevote is inviting you to help us shape the future. Who’s your +1?