Activists, celebrities and elected officials nationwide have taken up a familiar call to action in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police: vote.
It’s an important reminder but in 2020, it’s not enough. As protesters risk a pandemic to flood the streets of our largest cities, it’s no coincidence that the communities most affected by police brutality and systemic racism are the same communities in which voting rights have been ruthlessly targeted over the last few decades — and even just the last few years. Those of us with power and privilege must do more than call upon our fellow Americans to vote. We must recognize that for many of those marching in the streets and demanding that this country live up to its promises, voting is a less effective means of change than ever before.
If we are to bring both justice and peace to America, we must restore all Americans’ power to make real change at the ballot box.
In a 2017 poll, 91 percent of Americans said that the right to vote was essential to their personal freedom. Yet, the number of Americans stripped of that right has soared. In the 40 years before Donald Trump was elected president, for example, the number of would-be voters disenfranchised because of a prior felony conviction increased by 500 percent — 10 times faster than the population of America increased. Thanks primarily to the wave of mass arrests and convictions caused by the war on drugs and the so-called “tough on crime” laws that came with it, 6 million adults — 3 million of whom were no longer even on probation or parole — who would otherwise have been eligible to vote were unable to cast ballots in 2016.
Mass incarceration, which has had disproportionate effect on Black and brown communities, has been transformed into mass disenfranchisement in Black and brown communities.
But it is not only the formerly incarcerated who are legally barred from voting. Thanks to the backlog in our legal immigration system — and our failure to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, as President Lyndon Johnson did in the 1960s and President Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s — the country’s overall population of long-term residents without voting rights has soared. These immigrants pay taxes; they build businesses and create jobs; they serve on the front lines at our hospitals or in our military. Yet on Election Day, they have no say in how their country is run.
Even for many people who can legally register to vote, casting a ballot has never been more difficult. The problem includes — but goes far beyond —harsh laws requiring people to jump through hoops and produce increasingly specific forms of identification at the polls. Sweeping voter purges have also taken millions of eligible, registered adults off the rolls, often in lower-income and minority communities. And thanks to the conservative Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, more than 10 percent of America’s polling places were shuttered between 2008 and 2016 — with the cuts falling disproportionately in minority neighborhoods.
On top of all these factors, a host of new state laws have been implemented to discourage voter registration drives, or to make it difficult for college students to vote on campus— all of which target Black, brown and young Americans.
Furthermore, the political power of our country’s cities -– where most of this week’s protests have taken place -– has been severely diminished. Partisan gerrymandering, combined with the recent demographic trend of Democrats clustering in cities, have made urban areas home to some of the least competitive legislative districts in the nation. If you live in an urban area, your ballot almost certainly matters far less than it would if cast in the suburbs. This is true both at the federal level and at the state level, where many of the laws that could address police brutality are made.
In other words, places such as Atlanta; Columbus, Ohio; and Detroit — scenes of clashes instigated by police against protesters — are also the places whose residents have the hardest time affecting the laws that might make those clashes less likely to occur in the future.
Finally, there is a growing understanding that, despite our living in a government for, of and by the people, winning the battle for public opinion isn’t enough. Thanks to the electoral college, even if Californians and New Yorkers (or Arkansans and Utahans) register to vote in droves, it won’t matter in the presidential election because the only voters who matter are those in swing states. Meanwhile, thanks to the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for breaking filibusters on legislation, any meaningful reform cannot pass without the support of senators from states more rural, more conservative, and whiter than the nation as a whole.
No wonder, then, that an ever-growing number of Americans are sick and tired of living of a country that tells them to solve their problems through political means, and then robs them of the very power to do so.
But here’s the good news: it’s not too late to reverse these trends. The Senate could eliminate the filibuster tomorrow, making sweeping legislation far easier to pass. A single federal law could make voter registration automatic, end state voter purges, restore voting rights to all citizens and provide pathways to citizenship (and therefore enfranchisement) for immigrants. And in many states, voters and courts have the power to undo partisan gerrymanders even if politicians won’t stop passing them.
None of these reforms would, on their own, be enough to end police brutality, eliminate systemic racism or defeat white supremacy. But just as a house cannot be rebuilt on a crumbling foundation, our country cannot be repaired so long as our political process remains lopsided in favor of a privileged few. This November, voting is necessary but not sufficient. Only by ensuring that every American can truly participate in our political process can we restore our collective faith in our democracy and begin to keep the promise at the heart of this country: together, we can change.