What Are We Voting For?

Groups like Rock the Vote and VotER have worked hard to rekindle America’s passion for democracy, but there’s a clear and persistent gap between those who believe their vote will matter and those who do not. On September 17, Alberto Cifuentes Jr, LMSW facilitated a Virtual Anti-Racism Summit panel where he invited two University of Connecticut social work students to share their journeys from apathy to activism.

These panelists’ stories mirrored those of many Americans – young, POC, disabled, poor, or those with other marginalized identities – who doubt the impact of casting a ballot. The session was an opportunity to explore both sides of the issue, to unpack the complicated subject of American democracy and the stigma that is applied to those who lack faith in it. Yes, democracy only works if enough of us show up, but each individual faces a very different journey to get here.

Those in favor of voting usually frame it as a matter of exercising one’s civil rights. To vote means to place your trust in an elected official who you believe will best represent the causes and protect the rights you hold most dear. Participating in elections, especially local and state ones, has an impact on education, healthcare, housing, mental health services, immigration, emergency services, policing, and human rights as a whole. This is not idealism; when democracy is working at its very best, power can be used to protect and empower our people.

Aside from the obvious benefits of voting, there is the flip side – not voting can have huge consequences. Voter burn-out and indifference give strength to the opposing party or contested policy and create division among people who have similar ideals and politics but varying levels of trust or mistrust in the system. This is why die-hard politicos criticize write-in voters, who cast their ballot for an official not formally in the running (such as someone who dropped out earlier in the race). The rationale is often something like, “not voting for Candidate A equals a vote for Candidate B.” Though the efficacy of write-in voting has been debated, it is a valid option in many states and it presents a way for disenchanted voters to make their voices heard even if they don’t want to support the nominees on the ballot.

That active voters are overwhelmingly White, moderate- to upper-income, highly educated, and stably employed tells us a lot about who benefits from our current political system. Despite having multiple options for voters, including mail-in and absentee ballots, early voting, and election day voting, none of these choices are without pitfalls. Mail-in ballots create access for voters with mobility issues or who are medically at-risk and can’t show up to crowded spaces in person, but officials have been struggling for decades to deal with widespread ballot rejection and misplacement. This is a huge concern for swing states in particular.

Early voting helps those who can vote in person but aren’t sure they’ll be able to get to the polls on election day. However, if one casts their ballot early in a primary election for a candidate who then withdraws (the Democratic primaries this summer had 15) after they vote, they don’t get a second chance. Absentee ballots are also a useful tool for younger voters who are away at college – a population that tends to swing liberal – but postmark rules are strict and many voters won’t receive a ballot by election day. Unless a voter is affluent, healthy, has childcare, transportation, and/or a consistent work schedule, a lot could come between them and the ballot box. And, at the end of the day, the electoral college still serves to steamroll the popular vote, a policy we have yet to get rid of.

Flaws aside, the importance of voting in our current political situation is undeniable, but the U.S. voting system also disregards the hundreds of years of subjugation and disenfranchisement that have become embedded in many Americans’ lives, heightened by judgment and stigma. Pro-voting advocates argue that democracy is what sets us apart from less civilized societies. This is the type of paternalistic, “us versus them” thinking that leads to victim-blaming.

Experiencing voting as an act of empowerment is a privilege not all of us will enjoy. After hitting one barrier after another, from the terrorism of the Jim Crow south to today’s covert racist and classist policies, we should be able to understand when those who’ve faced suppression begin to shut down and turn away from the democratic process. This is so common that it has actually earned its own name: psychological voter suppression. Practices like roll purging, felony voting laws, ID requirements, misinformation, reducing poll locations, manipulated district lines, and harassment are all responsible for the downtick in voter morale and participation. Before we attack eligible voters for not turning out to the polls, let’s reflect on the reasons for their ambivalence and attend to those root causes. If a person votes for their chosen party their entire adult life and never sees the kinds of meaningful change that will assure their and their community’s safety and future, what are they really voting for?

So what can be done to increase voter turnout and reduce barriers? A few things:

Vote. If you’re able to vote without sacrificing your physical, financial, or emotional safety, do it! Register before your state’s deadline (usually 10 days prior to the election) – vote.org offers a state by state list of deadlines. You can check your voter registration status, look up early voting dates, and register for a mail-in or absentee ballot here through your state’s election office.

Assist. If you’re registered to vote in your state and want to go in person, coordinate your election day travel plans with other voters in your household and neighborhood. Round up others like you with privilege and access and encourage them to do the same. Companies like Lyft and Uber are offering discounted rides to the polls; community-based groups like RideShare2Vote are booming; and your local AARP office, doctor’s office, place of worship, or City Hall can help too. 

Empathize. Practice humility, and accept that your lived experience is not the same as others. Don’t make assumptions about who is able to vote. Don’t shame or blame people from marginalized communities who can vote and choose not to. Trust that they’re doing what they need to survive in an oppressive world, and that healing has to come first. Cast your ballot for officials (especially in local and state elections) whose policies will advance the good of the whole, not the few. 

Organize. Canvassing and joining phone banks are a couple of ways to spread the word about candidates you believe in. Hone in on efforts like prison abolition, refugee rights, or labor protections for non-traditional workers. Felony disenfranchisement laws, for example, mean that in 2016, over six million Americans (the vast majority Black) could not vote because of their legal status. Understand that anti-oppression work improves democracy. Be willing to relinquish a little of your privilege so that others can possess more agency in their own lives. 

Finally, if you have ever felt reluctant to turn out for an election because you lack faith in the outcome or don’t see your identities represented in the candidates, run for office and bring the changes you know are needed. The system is working exactly as designed – it’s up to the people to change it. 

When Preparation Meets Opportunity: Old Lessons Are New Again

campaign-ban

Years ago in a relatively small town, a failed board election campaign was ultimately lost by the candidate I worked for, but it taught me some fundamental lessons about the political process. Even at that level, the lessons mirrored lessons I had learned years before as a failed candidate for high school student council president. These lessons seem even more important in the face of Voter ID laws, Citizens United, and McCutcheon v FEC. Money can be a menace, but ignorance of the process can be just as detrimental.

First Friends
After watching my friend unsuccessfully compete for the school board seat, he had apparently learned something the second time around when he decided to schedule a meeting with the head of the Ministerial Council.

What he did not practice the first time around is the law of first friends. The whole entourage thing that some celebs have going is also a necessity in electoral politics. If you cannot show that you have friends that will hang with you, it is hard to convince groups to support you. The first meeting with the Ministerial Council, my friend called at the last minute to ask if I would accompany him. He said frantically, “We’re meeting at a restaurant”.  They asked if I had anyone to bring with me. I panicked and said your name.” The meeting went well, but the pastors in attendance wondered aloud why our pastor was not a member of the council. Needless to say, the next meeting included our pastor.

The Power of People Knowing You
The naive may think that politics is a simple matter of getting your name on the ballot. “It’s who you know,” they may say. My friend knew how to get on the ballot. But, his miscalculation was what it took to get voters to select his name as opposed to others. “It’s not just about who you know, but it’s also about who knows you.” Another lesson, he learned the hard way.

The second time around, his campaign was top-to-bottom about creating a compelling narrative to inform constituents. He pulled his family along on trips to local churches, soul food restaurants, school PTA meetings, and more. He became a master of striking up conversations with strangers.

The Mechanism of Campaigning
My friend’s run at the school board post was much more methodical the second time around. I had learned the lessons of creating a campaign mechanism as a high school senior. I was well-known in my school of about 1000 students, but being well-known does not make a campaign that requires action.

One morning a couple of days prior to the election, I arrived to school and was greeted at the door by my two challengers each with their own tables handing out ice cream to the student body. It was if I had turned to stone as I watched voters streaming to their tables accepting treats. I have often reflected on that moment as my career has progressed. Never again will I rely on organic development when it matters. I will find ways to connect with people I do not know, and I will never underestimate the power of a small cup of ice cream.

The Reality of Politics
With the fluster around money, the truth can be lost that voters want to be informed and are capable of voting their conscience. It is true that many vote on ideals or out of resistance to a candidate. My friend’s bid for school board was fraught with expenses from filing fees to yard signs to personal donations to charities. Hosting fundraisers was a legitimate support activity. Yet, he was not the pick of the party. It was not just money he was up against. It was an institutional structure.

Even more striking is the change that happens when a voter or a political wannabe comprehends the political entity itself. More than just how a bill becomes a law, how certain individuals in certain positions balance power and protect individual liberties.

At the conclusion of his campaign, my friend notified me that the party so admired his campaign that he had been appointed to another non-elected board position in the city. On that board, he rose to represent the city in national venues.

My failed student council bid resulted in focused work on the class level, and I was invited by the class president to get involved. Most notably, I worked to craft an awareness campaign for a multi-campus radio competition.

From where I sit, both these failures turned successes were accomplished through knowledge of the system, who knew us, but also through someone who was willing to appoint us to important tasks. Our requirement was to make ourselves a target for appointment.

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