On August 28, I brought my family to the National Mall to join March On for Voting Rights. It’s hard to know whether you’re making history when you’re right in the middle of it. Fifty years previously, on August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King led 250,000 people on a historic March On Washington. There, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Then, Black Americans were living under the tyranny of Jim Crow laws meant to keep them disenfranchised. Now, a minority of White Americans in the Republican base are seeking to bring those laws back. We still have a long way to go.
We know our power. In 2020, despite a pandemic and numerous obstacles, record numbers of Americans of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds voted. Some have said that in 2020, America finally came close to achieving its promise of universal suffrage. Nearly 70 percent of all eligible citizens voted, and this represented an increase in turnout in every single demographic category. Some analysts have said that is the highest level of voter turnout in 120 years , but they are wrong. Because until 100 years ago (1920), women did not have the right to vote. Native Americans’ right to vote in federal elections was not recognized until 1948 . Asian Americans weren’t counted as citizens and thus couldn’t vote until 1952. And many African Americans remained disenfranchised until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 . This is why we say: in 2020 we had the highest voter turnout ever in US history. And we are not going back.
Yet one month after the March, it’s hard not to feel we are going backward. Texas just passed shocking new legislation raising substantial new roadblocks for voters of color. Conservative state legislators are furiously introducing hundreds of bills with new voting restrictions wherever they can. Worse yet, Republicans are very actively organizing and funding their base to challenge the very legitimacy of our electoral process. As parallel opinion pieces in the Washington Post and New York Times highlighted this weekend, Republicans are seeking to take over election processes at local levels around the country so they can challenge results anywhere and anytime they don’t win. We are in the midst of a constitutional crisis. And for all our activism on the National Mall last month, we are having a hard time getting the action we need at a federal level. It’s hard not to feel like the mountain is just too high.
Seventy percent of us voted last year, but that means 30 percent of us didn’t. And I’m tired of having to explain to well-meaning friends who have never had a problem casting their vote that the issue isn’t voter apathy. It’s people whose nearest polling station is over an hour’s drive away. It’s people who aren’t allowed to vote by mail. It’s people who can’t take time off from work to stand in long lines for hours on end to cast their vote, because they are afraid of having their pay docked. It’s single parents without help to watch their kids while they vote. It’s people without permanent addresses who get challenged at their local polling station because there was no easy way for them to get on the rolls. And it’s new immigrants and ex-felons who are afraid they aren’t allowed to vote, sometimes even when they are.
But we can’t give up and we can’t go back. One bright spot is that in the past month, Congressional Democrats have been busy building consensus around the new Freedom To Vote Act, to create national standards that will protect our communities who are now facing new state level assaults on their ability to vote. Not enough Democratic legislators are feeling the existential threat, though. While our communities are exhausted, it’s going to require us to keep rising up to demand that our legislators pass the Freedom to Vote Act. And then a few of us need to fix all the broken parts of our system that still prevent so many people from voting.
The fact is, the assault on voting rights isn’t just intended to change the mechanics of voting. It’s intended to wear us down and make us despair. And for this reason, it will be important for us to continue to work together, because we can pick each other up and give each other hope when things seem hopeless. That’s one of the reasons why, beyond all expectations, a small grassroots group that I founded with some friends in late 2016 stuck together through four long years of the Trump Administration. It’s why we started to see more and more champions step forward to work with us. And the more we amplify one another, the more our voices are heard. For all the backlash, we’ve never had a more robust public discussion in this country about race and equity than we are having now. We are seeing leadership for social justice in thought and action in our universities, our media outlets, and yes, our elected representatives.
But finding that one thing that each of us can do, that feels manageable but feels like it will really make a difference, isn’t easy. I took my family to a march. Was that action something that made a difference? That will depend on what all of us do next.
- Bama Athreya, Coordinator, Diversity Declaration/Diversity Matters