Update |

We Need to Complicate the Conversation About Our Democracy, Our Communities, and Voting

By: Mikayla Dawson, MiQuel Davies  

Voting is an essential function of our democracy. It has implications for every single aspect of our lives. Voting is one of the ways we determine our futures: whether it be how or if we plan our families, the environment future generations will live in, how we will keep communities safe, and so much more. Voting determines who represents us in our state and federal legislatures, who will fight for our right to live freely and with dignity, and who will work against us. Voting – and its consequences – shapes the course of our lives in many ways both directly and indirectly. There is no doubt each of us has felt the impacts of voting particularly over the last few years during an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the response to police murdering unarmed Black people, and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. If you are asking the question: Should you get out and vote this November? Does it really matter? The answer is absolutely, emphatically, yes.

But to say that voting is the main pathway to equity and justice ignores that our political system wasn’t founded on equity and justice – it was founded on racism, classism and misogyny. So, when you see that the South has low voter turnout, that they vote for cruel legislation that goes against their interests, that means the system is working as it was designed. And that system relies on you blaming these communities for their own oppression.

That’s why we can’t leave it at voting. This conversation is far more nuanced and complicated than merely suggesting voting as the solution to all of democracy’s woes and the vehicle for change. Shouting  “Get out and vote!” without acknowledging the millions of people who are deliberately prohibited from voting due to laws that disenfranchise citizens, such as the laws applied to returning citizens who have been convicted of felony offenses, does not address the root of the problem. Not to mention the fact that many of those millions of people have been disenfranchised because of the carceral system and our country’s “War on Drugs,” which disproportionately harms and incarcerates Black and brown men. “Get out and vote!” as the sole battle cry heading into the midterm elections is ahistorical and unnuanced. Simply saying “Get out and vote!” erases the millions of people in the South who have been organizing and voting for decades. It ignores the ways they have been subject to intense gerrymandering— a deeply undemocratic process in some cases nearly guaranteeing electoral results by dividing up communities and weakening their collective power.  Importantly, slogans like this do not get to the heart of the matter. We are shouting “Get out and vote!” as white supremacy and  disinformation about our elections led to an insurrection and an attempt to disrupt the transfer of power between Presidents. An event with consequences we are still grappling with.  Imagine how frustrating it is to live in a state where legislators are actively working to block access to the ballot, erecting barriers for people including strict voter ID laws, restrictions on voting by mail, barriers on registering people to vote, mass purging of voter rolls, and imposing harsh penalties on voters and poll workers who violate even arbitrary rules. Someone telling you “Get out and vote!”  is unhelpful at best. It is misguided, uninformed and disrespectful.

The truth is that political leadership in these states don’t want certain people to vote – and they make every effort to try to make sure they don’, some going as far as to prevent volunteers from handing out water and snacks in long lines The capriciousness, the cruelty of it all, is exactly the point. We can’t expect to beat voter suppression through voting alone.

Our current political state- the evisceration of reproductive rights, large scale state sponsored efforts to disenfranchise voters, attacks on those fighting for access to care- is the downstream result of long-standing hegemonic oppression, racism, classism, and misogyny – not the beginning of the story. If every state that has implemented abortion bans, anti-trans laws, book banning, assaults against the teaching American history, were to “flip” in this next election, these issues would all still exist. The irreparable harm that has been done to many communities for decades cannot be waved away with a magic wand, or a ballot.

Yes, we can reduce this harm by voting. But it is critical that we don’t buy into the narrative that voting will solve or repair centuries of past and ongoing harm. It will not.

We are doing a deep disservice to ourselves and our communities by oversimplifying issues around voting and refusing to collectively grapple with the realities stemming from a democracy that is frustrated and struggling. It is not helpful or realistic to promise communities that if you just get out and vote this time, it will mean an end to the struggle. This narrative repeats itself every election cycle Meanwhile, we are failing to build trust, community, and solidarity among and between us. We’ve fallen into a vicious cycle: Tell people to vote, legislators don’t deliver, we tell people to vote harder, rinse, repeat. This cycle is not working, and if it were ever going to work, then it already would have. It’s time to dream new ways to shape our future.

You may be thinking, “But in order to do any of those things we need people to vote and elect officials who will represent their needs.” We agree. We need people to vote. We also desperately need a more intentional and informed conversation about what it means to vote and an acknowledgement that for many people voting has not been possible for them or their communities. Our Get Out the Vote efforts must take a step back and frame itself within the larger context – acknowledging the lived experiences of communities and placing it within a larger conversation of what it means to be part of a democracy that works for everyone. And as two people with many years of combined policy, political, and real-world experience, we are here to tell you: that conversation and context is missing.

Instead of relying on slogans and hashtags to carry this message forward, we urge you to encourage people to vote AND in the same breath name the realities and impacts of core democracy issues. From gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement, to the filibuster, a federal judicial system including a Supreme Court that continues to take away core civil and constitutional rights, and rampant misinformation and disinformation about our elections and our democracy, there is a need to talk about the critical importance of democracy reform. Equally as critical is the need to talk about what we, as a society, are going to do about these issues. We cannot place the blame or responsibility on individual voters anymore or dismiss the frustrations of those who have been organizing and voting for a long time to no avail. We need to try something different. Our Get Out the Vote efforts must also clearly acknowledge the ways that our democracy is not working for everyone. We must be honest about that. We must dig deep within ourselves and support those  communities who are directly impacted by these issues, and commit ourselves to listening deeply to the lived experiences of those being called to action.

We are asking you to imagine and create a new world with us. Vote. Get your neighbors to vote. And then on November 9th, ask yourself: what can I do for my community now that the election is over?