In late June, a group of mothers of Black sons and daughters wrote an impassioned letter to the leaders of the U.S. Senate, pleading for Congress to take meaningful action to confront systemic racism. Many of the mothers had lost children to police violence and praised the surge of activism following the police killing of George Floyd, and the increase in public support for police reform and valuing Black lives. But, they argued, “the only way to create a democracy that truly represents us all is to have every eligible voice heard at the ballot box.”
American history is full of reasons to fear these mothers’ cries will fall on deaf ears, but recent events — from the multiracial outpouring in the streets to cities showing innovative ways we can vote safely during this pandemic — suggest a more encouraging age.
Protecting the right of every voice to be heard on Election Day has long been a struggle in this country. There is a disheartening history of disenfranchising communities of color. We vote at comparatively low rates. And the 2020 election comes with new hurdles. The pandemic has forced vote by mail and other options, even as President Donald Trump attacks these efforts for partisan gain. The Supreme Court on July 2 rejected a lower-court ruling allowing the state of Alabama to loosen several restrictions on voting in light of the pandemic.
Despite these challenges, the past month has produced an unprecedented wave of civic engagement, with as many as 75 million Americans taking some action to demand racial justice. While police brutality provided the catalyst, people are demanding systemic reform, including investing in Black communities. Not just the right to breathe, but to breathe clean air and make a living wage.
There is no guarantee that this activism will translate into increased voter turnout. Many of those marching in the streets will no doubt be disillusioned by Congress’ tepid response to date on police reform and a legacy of failure locally to make lasting change. Young people, who are in large measure powering this season’s demonstrations, historically underperform at the ballot box.
And yet there is reason for hope. Consider the case of Baltimore and Maryland’s June 2 vote-by-mail primary — a totally new experience for most Maryland voters. Mr. Floyd’s death spurred a furious uprising that threatened to derail efforts to get out the vote. Election Day fell on Black Out Tuesday, when the music industry led a call to suspend business as usual to protest police brutality and racism. Baltimore-based voting advocates like Black Girls Vote, the No Boundaries Coalition and Out for Justice explicitly connected protests for racial justice to the election at hand. They made public service announcements and led a car caravan through West Baltimore, where “Black Lives Matter” signs mingled with ones reading “I Love Baltimore So I Vote.”
Some worried that the protests, combined with missteps from the State Board of Elections and general confusion, would suppress turnout. Instead, Baltimore had the highest turnout of any jurisdiction in the state and its highest turnout for a primary election since 1987. Similar scenarios have played out in other parts of the country.
These primary contests are a dry run for the presidential vote in November. Much work needs to be done to make voting safe and secure for what is shaping up to be the most consequential contest yet of the 21st Century. While Congress set aside $400 million for election safety in its initial stimulus package, it wasn’t nearly enough; experts say it will take about $4 billion to protect against COVID-19, educate voters on safe and secure voting, and to staff the polls under new guidelines. In Maryland, these difficulties will be compounded by Gov. Hogan’s decision to hold the election in-person. Open Society is stepping up its efforts, making new investments in ongoing efforts to combat voter suppression and bolster election security.
Like protest, the vote is a key means of lifting voices and empowering our communities. We got a glimpse of this earlier this month, when voters in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was killed, elected Ella Jones their first black mayor.
In their letter to Congress, the mothers noted that June 25th was the 7th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, upending decades of progress. It took millions hitting the streets to pressure Congress to pass that landmark legislation 55 years ago. If the people protesting this spring can carry their momentum into the voting booth, we just might see historic change and progress again come November.
Laleh Ispahani (email@example.com) is managing director of Open Society-U.S. Ashiah Parker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of Baltimore’s No Boundaries Coalition.