“High standards can be contagious. But it doesn’t necessarily happen through osmosis. Sometimes you have to budge people into doing the right thing—either by example or in a more obvious way.” – Nannie Helen Burroughs
While growing up, I was taught that my community’s injustices could be fixed if I engaged in the electoral process. However, after spending considerable time volunteering to register voters, I didn’t see the immediate impact. Since I didn’t notice things changing in my neighborhood, I couldn’t see how civic engagement was useful. I shared my feelings with the local NAACP youth and college division director, and she gave me some advice. “First, you must eliminate the doubt that you can effect change, then we will receive what we are due, and justice will be done.” Her point to me was that we have to release the doubt that we can create change and accept the challenge to change what we consider unacceptable, then we will see the impact.
Like the time I volunteered to stuff envelopes for Marcy Kaptur’s Congressional campaign. It was my first experience campaigning, and I spent hours licking and sticking stamps before mailing them at the post office. I wanted to make a difference and help create social change by being active civically for women issues. At the time, there was an awe-inspiring movement in U.S. politics to diversify political leadership — electing more African Americans, women, and young people to office. Perhaps it was the legacy of passing the voting rights act or just the natural next step in our political evaluation, but I wanted to be a part of it.
“I don’t vote because we don’t see the immediate impact.” I heard a young activist say while the group was eating dinner between shifts. She was right, and we would hear statements like that while talking with peers about voting. “Okay then, how can we persuade students of color to awaken and create long-term impact?” When students of color are inspired, they tend to be connected, remarkable and resourceful activists. If we link their issues, values, and inspiration to our life experiences and relationships, they will see their vote’s impact. The point was that we knew from experience when students of color understand the consequences of their actions and take personal responsibility for addressing an issue; their core values are inspirationally motivated.
Amid today’s persistent barrage of fractious issues stemming from a lack of quality education, financial freedom, and adequate healthcare, we must not separate everyday life relevance or prospective influence from civic engagement. I recently talked with a past NAACP mentee about what it’s going to take for the United States to bounce back from this global pandemic, economic, civil, and human rights crisis. We agreed that it has been like pushing a car up a hill in the sweltering heat. The truth is that voting is one of the most important vehicles that Americans have to get from one place in life to another and influence the policies that affect our lives. Therefore, when people need help voting, we should make every effort to help them because it makes our democracy work better.
I wish that were the logic behind restrictive voting laws that cut early in-person and vote by mail. These laws limit the days you can vote by changing the deadline for voters to vote by mail or early vote in-person. They turn a blind eye to the millions of voters who historically vote during the early vote days before Election Day. It dampens early-voters’ impact by impeding voters of color who plan to take advantage of that last few weekends. That’s why it’s essential to help voters cast an early ballot by mail or in person without an excuse. This increases civic participation and strengthens our democracy until we pass a law making Election Day a holiday with same-day registration.
As we know, voting early and voting by mail helps to ease the long lines on Election Day — something that makes headlines every election cycle. In 2000, the lines were so long in many places around the country that precincts closed before voters could cast their ballot. Nearly a million voters—close to 3% of all registered voters—had this experience. This led to legal contests in St. Louis, which affected Missouri’s U.S. Senate race. By closing the polling places before everyone in line was able to vote, many voters were disenfranchised. Voters who made extraordinary efforts to go to the polls were denied ballots due to no fault of their own.
Each of the nearly 200,000 polling places nationwide will handle about 500 voters on Election Day. Since we only have about 700,000 workers at the polls, early voting and voting by mail effectively ensure that voters are not disenfranchised. In 2008, more than 1.7 million Ohio voters cast ballots early – close to 30% of all ballots. Election Days are predicted to be more taxing for the foreseeable future as America gears up for record-breaking voter turnout due to the nation’s demographic shift. This is especially of concern for students of color.
According to a recent civic engagement report, Voters of Color (VOC) could turn out at an even higher future rate.
- The study proposes that if African-American registration rises to 78.3%, we could see 3 million more African American voters.
- The Latinx community grew to 50 million in 2010 while the Asian American – Pacific Islander (AAPI) population increased to 5.2% of the national population.
- If those demographic trends materialize, VOC could make up more than 23% of the eligible electorate.
There is a significant VOC population in swing states like Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia. These states were anti-public education strongholds until recently. Also, each state became more pro-public education as the demographics began to change. There is strong evidence that political geography is why pro-public education leaders improved their 2000 electoral performance by more than seven points in each state. Moreover, experts believe that Virginia’s and Nevada’s recent purple propensities are powered by 55% and 71% AAPI growth since 2000.
Population growth is an essential factor in predicting turnout. The voting laws in Ohio are based on the misconception that VOC will not be 17% of the electorate. As an unintended consequence, Ohio may disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters. Worst yet, this will turn a blind eye to the profound and chronic problems of race and discrimination in voting practices.
What is the most important thing we can do to cultivate a civic engagement mindset for students of color? Collective, evidence-based, and reflective systems change essential. Based on data, their involvement, capabilities, and conversations within peer groups, we can inspire and motivate young people to vote. We must assess our nation’s successes and failures, fine-tune our approach to democracy, and start all over again where necessary. This practice will allow us to improve exponentially year after year. Our ultimate goal should be to help students of color manage and advocate for themselves, elect leaders that share their interests, and pass laws that expand democracy to every American. We must widen the circle of freedom so that all realize the American promise of liberty and justice for all.
To be continued …
Kirk Clay is the President of Capitol View Advisors — a collaborative investing and acting on its values in creative and strategic ways to connect communities with the information and resources they need to support and further their aspirations.