Written by Justin Kwasa
What’s at stake with our right to vote? These days, particularly for communities of color, the answer is absolutely everything.
50 years after the first Earth Day, the common refrain “we only have one planet” continues to ring hollow for far too many communities of color who experience a planet burdened by environmental racism. And amid a global health crisis, we face the grim reality that these same communities are being hit the hardest, and for related reasons. While the sources of these injustices are wide-ranging — institutional and systemic racism embedded into housing, healthcare, economic systems —a solution remains: protect the vote.
People of color, specifically Black people, are contracting the COVID-19 virus and dying from it at disproportionate rates. Communities of color already face higher rates of health problems like heart disease, diabetes and asthma. And many of these diseases — including COVID-19 — are exacerbated or caused by toxic pollution in the air and water, which is more prevalent in communities of color. In fact, a preliminary study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that living in areas that had high levels of air pollution before the pandemic puts those communities at a much higher risk of death from coronavirus. Environmental racism is putting communities of color at a higher risk of dying from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Communities of color, overburdened by health and environmental crises, are the same communities that this country has traditionally and intentionally left out of the democratic process. And the same efforts that have been used for decades to suppress voting — restricting access to absentee voting, limiting early voting, closing polling places in communities of color, preventing online voter registration — are what is putting our election system at particular risk this year.
This month, Wisconsin held its primary election, despite Governor Evers’ efforts to expand absentee voting and delay the election, both of which the Republican-led legislature successfully blocked in court. As a result, voters — most notably in Milwaukee, the epicenter of Wisconsin’s coronavirus pandemic, where only five of 180 polling sites were open — stood in lines for hours, during a pandemic, to exercise their right to vote. Many residents also did not receive their absentee ballots, forcing them to choose between their health and civic duty.
Milwaukee is a microcosm of the coronavirus pandemic’s nationwide impact on Black communities. While only about 26% of Milwaukee County’s population is Black, 44 of the 67 total people who have died from the virus in the county were African American. In other words, voting in the 2020 Wisconsin primary was a life threatening decision for Black people in Milwaukee.
Despite these barriers, communities of color still came out to vote in force, contributing to the defeat of Daniel Kelly, one of the Wisconsin Supreme Court justices responsible for endangering their communities in the first place.
The administration of the 2020 Wisconsin primary election reflects the discriminatory approach taken to voting across much of our nation, and unless we take immediate action to adapt our election systems in the face of COVID-19, communities of color will pay the price. We need states to take immediate action to prepare for elections amid this ongoing health crisis, and in order to do so they need resources and guidelines from the federal government.
Thankfully, we know what needs to be done, and there are states across the nation leading the way for others to follow. We need Congress to provide states with at least $4 billion to fully fund and administer the 2020 elections in a safe, fair and accessible manner, through the implementation of vote-by-mail and the expansion of early voting and in-person voting options. In the most recent COVID-19 aid package, the House and Senate took a step in the right direction by providing an initial $400 million for states to administer elections — but that was frankly a drop in the bucket of the total needed to ensure that all voters, particularly people of color, Native Americans, people with disabilities, limited-English proficient citizens, students and other historically marginalized citizens, can participate.
As the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights lays out in a letter to Congress, co-signed by more than 150 advocacy organizations including the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), an additional $3.6 billion in funding for 2020 election assistance is essential to ensuring full voting access for all voters, no matter what community they come from.
While we are unable to give the 50th anniversary of Earth Day a proper celebration this year, the very best thing we can do for our planet, and for the communities of color on the frontlines of the climate crisis, toxic pollution, and the COVID-19 pandemic, is to protect our elections.
Congress can improve access to and trust in our democracy by passing these voting access measures as swiftly as possible in its next legislative action to address the coronavirus pandemic. With equal access to the ballot box, the communities that our country has traditionally left out of the decision making process can reclaim their rightful influence, resulting in a system that responds to the people’s will to overcome our country’s most critical environmental challenges.
Justin Kwasa is the Voting Rights Program Director for the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) and ran a 2012 GOTV campaign for the Community Voters Project in Wisconsin.