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Obtaining voting rights for Black communities was part of the historic Freedom Movement. Activists boldly approached this cause, understanding that voting is a tool to advance freedom, but that voting is not freedom in and of itself. Likewise, modern advocates for voting rights need to come to a similar conclusion about how we approach electoral power, political participation and voter access campaigns.
With the 54th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act upon us, it is important that we assess the evolution of voter restriction and evaluate the voter access tools we have used to bolster political participation and power.
We are beyond the days when Black voters had to jump through blatantly racist hoops at the polls, such as reciting the entire constitution, meeting morality character requirements, or proving that our grandfathers had the right to vote. Now voter restriction is much more subtle, yet just as pervasive and effective. Take for example the voter registration fiasco at Prairie View A&M last year, where thousands of students at the historically Black college were instructed to register using the incorrect precinct address. Or Florida’s SB 7066 which undermines Amendment 4 – a law overwhelmingly passed by voters last November – and denies those convicted of felonies from casting their ballot until they pay all of their legal fees.
It is clear that we need to ensure that elected officials and other key stakeholders are accountable to our communities well after Election Day, yet voter access still primarily centers around election-year efforts to increase registrations.
As organizers and proponents of political participation from marginalized communities, we need to re-evaluate how we talk about voting today in light of these new challenges. We especially need to consider how we keep the voter access engine running even when it isn’t an election year because voting divorced of sustained community organizing is guaranteed to fulfill the political objectives of others–but not ours. Rather than just “Get Out the Vote” we need to, in the words of Latosha Brown, “Get Out the People” and promote sustained political engagements in communities.
This coupling of voter access and year-round community organizing and engagement is not new: electoral accountability has been a recent focus of several organizing initiatives in the South, as well as New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
One shining example of this marriage occurred in Jackson, MS. Local Mississippians established the People’s Assembly to create space for discourse, analysis and power building. This organization allowed community members to imagine the changes they want to see and map out the process of actualizing those changes. Community members identified their ideal candidates for various government offices, and simultaneously engaged in local efforts to actualize their vision within their neighborhoods. With this method, Jackson, MS elected the late Chokwe Lumumba first as City Council and, years later, as Mayor. The theory behind the People’s Assembly is simple: make sure that the will and objectives of the community are always centered—election year or not.
Jackson is a successful proof of concept. Yet, generally speaking, the focus is still on traditional methods where resources and attention are dumped into key locations for short periods of time with one, narrow purpose. It’s time we assess our efforts the way Civil Rights Activists of the 1960s did. Election-year registration campaigns are a tool for increasing the political participation in communities of color, but election-year registration is not in and of itself political participation nor increasing political power.
Black electoral participation and empowerment is a continuous process that does not end on Election Day. As organizers, we work to build effective and sustainable power within impacted communities, and electoral power is one manifestation of that power. What is needed now, is for that power to be amplified by the type of constant, pressure that active community organizations can apply daily. It is in our best interest, and in the best interest of true democracy, that we invest in long term sustainable organizing rather than solely episodic voter registration campaigns.