Defending the vote in communities of color: Scenes from a national groundswell

This story was originally published by Prism Media. This article is part of a collaboration between Prism and Just Media. 

In this unprecedented election cycle, voter participation has hit record levels. Only part way through October, this year’s early vote total had already surpassed that of 2016. Voters have reported long lines at polling places for days on end. In Philadelphia, the biggest city in a major swing state, more than 90% of eligible voters are registered, the highest rate in 35 years

Why these trends? It’s not just white, upper-middle class, suburban women, the poster children of 2018’s blue wave, who are coming out. It’s also historically disenfranchised communities of color, the “other swing voters.” And within those communities, this groundswell comes due to intensive organizing efforts.

With so much uncertainty surrounding this election, community organizations are doubling down to mobilize—and defend—the vote. Their tactics range from de-escalation trainings to helping voters with felony records pay off their debts.

In this piece, six writers share local dispatches from these efforts. The piece is part of Prism’s collaboration with Just Media, a new hub supporting grassroots coverage of policing, prison, and justice issues. This fall, Just Media has a team of eleven Just 2020 fellows, emerging writers covering electoral justice in their areas.

Arizona: Young voters prepare to de-escalate

Arizona has never made it easy for people to vote, especially people of color. Over the past 60 years, the state’s voter suppression tactics have run the gamut, from strict literacy tests to ID requirements and inaccessible polling locations. In response to this year’s unprecedented threats, organizers from the Arizona Student Association are setting up voter protection and mutual aid stations at each of the 38 polling stations in the city of Flagstaff. 

Students come from each of Arizona’s public universities—the U of A, ASU, and NAU—and are coordinated with a statewide coalition, Election Protection Arizona. Students will provide meals, water, menstrual products, and PPE on Election Day. Additionally, they’re conducting de-escalation training to prepare for possible violence at the polls. Even though Arizona is one of the only six states that prohibits guns at polling sites, right-wing groups threaten to intimidate and discourage Black, Indigenous, and other voters of color.

Riziki Gloria, an ASU freshman, shared frustration that students have to take these methods into their own hands. “Our preparation and training is a reflection that the state isn’t taking election protection seriously enough,” she said. “I feel obligated to vote because as an African living in America, my life alone is political. My rights as a Black individual have always been restrained through systematic means. Voting gives me a voice, and I will continuously raise it in hopes that someone will hear it.” 

Coordinating with the County Recorder’s Office, ASA students also worked to get an Early Ballot Box installed on the NAU campus. This is the first time that the university has ever had one. In a time when public transportation is unsafe and the mail system isn’t fully trusted, it provides young voters with a safe, easy way to make sure their ballots are received and counted.

—Anna Deogratias

Nevada: Mass liberation

Last year, more than 100 people stripped of their voting rights traveled 600 miles from Las Vegas to Carson City. Their demand: re-enfranchise them and the nearly 77,000 Nevada residents barred from voting because of past criminal convictions. The ensuing law, which passed last July, gives these thousands of people the potential to influence contests on the ballot this year, especially the dozens of judicial positions that could reverse the state’s overreliance on incarceration. Though 30 states are greater in population, Nevada locks people up at higher rates than most others. Unsurprisingly, racial disparities are stark, with Black residents incarcerated at a rate of more than double their percentage of the population.

For those whose rights have been restored, participating in the 2020 general election depends entirely on being informed of the change in law and getting registered. In the lead-up to Nov. 3, organizers with the Mass Liberation Project, a member-based organization focused on ending mass incarceration and criminalization, are leading voter engagement efforts. Organizers are hosting COVID-safe, drive-thru voter registration sites and events in neighborhoods like the historically Black and long-neglected Westside of Las Vegas, in order to reach new voters. In their efforts, organizers have an extra cushion: Nevada is among 21 states allowing voter registration up through Election Day. 

—Nathaniel Phillipps

Michigan: Essential workers on the ballot

In Michigan, the red-blue divide is heavily racialized, with overwhelming Democratic voting blocs in majority Black and brown cities. This year, the Economic Justice Alliance of Michigan (EJAM) has a team of 40 organizers engaging voters in metro Detroit, Flint, and Saginaw. Organizers are part of the Michigan Economic Justice fellowship program. For the past nine months, they’ve trained on the role of elections in movement building and tactics for GOTV and election protection. 

With this ground game, EJAM is doubling down on voter education. On the doors, organizers are distributing voter guides covering minimum wage, earned sick time laws, legislative redistricting, and the fight to strike down Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency powers, which she has utilized during the COVID-19 crisis. To maintain voter safety, the group has teams of volunteer monitors at three early voting locations in Detroit.

Back in 2018, EJAM helped with the effort to launch the one fair wage and unpaid sick time ballot initiative, which would have been crucial for essential and minimum wage workers. Even after they garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures to force a legislative vote on paid sick leave, Michigan lawmakers pushed it to the lame-duck session the next fall, killing it—a covert action of voter suppression for underpaid workers. 

“We’re trying to educate Michigan essential workers in terms of benefits of bonus salaries or increasing their salaries during sick days,” said W. DeWayne Wells of EJAM. “Make sure as you talk to your candidates whether they support unpaid leave and their stance on minimum wage, and keep all candidates accountable.”

Cheryn Hong

Georgia: As goes the South

On Feb. 23, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year old Black man, was shot and killed by white vigilantes while out jogging in Glynn County, Georgia. In response, the Lift Every Voice Coalition formed, bringing together Christian organizers and faith leaders across the country. It’s inspired by Proverbs 31:8-9: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” One guiding focus: amending the Exceptions Clause in the 13th Amendment, which allows for continued slavery in the case of “punishment for crime.” This fall, Georgia organizers have been educating voters through a series of virtual panel events on voter suppression and issues on the ballot. 

Lift Every Voice is joined by Loose the Chains, an arm of Stacey Abrams’ New Georgia Project (NGP). The group is organizing clergy and faith leaders to serve as poll chaplains at precincts that have historically had challenges with long lines, dysfunctional machines, and a lack of pens and other supplies. Chaplains will provide spiritual and emotional support, give out water and snacks, address issues that arise, and connect voters with NGP’s election protection hotline. The group is also preparing faith leaders to be moral voices in the case of crisis post-election, through protest chaplaincy and faith-based organizing. 

“We need to center the voice of impacted persons not just as it relates to criminal legal reform but all justice issues,” said Rev. Billy Michael Honor, who heads Loose the Chains. “When we talk about climate care, we need to center the voices of those in rural communities. When it comes to voting rights, we need to center the voices of those impacted. Narrative change is one reason it’s important. It also helps us remember—this is about people’s lives. The work is about what happens to us.”

Deirdre Austin

Wisconsin: What democracy looks like during a pandemic

In the April primary, Wisconsin rejected a reported 23,000 ballots, continuing a long tradition of voter disenfranchisement. The state’s strict photo identification law, among only eight in the country, requires a legal photo identification to vote on Election Day—systematically taking people of color, immigrants, and queer and trans people off the rolls. 

The Voter ID Coalition, based in Dane County, is focused on fighting voter suppression within marginalized communities. The coalition hosts a helpline focused on addressing polling issues, such as rejection over form of ID, and providing general voting information. On Oct. 24, the coalition partnered with Building Unity, a community justice-based project, on a “Pack the Polls Parade.” The event brought together hundreds of local residents across 15 Wisconsin communities to support early voting and registration. Local organizers facilitated concurrent parades in these communities, encouraging residents to join from their cars and even launch additional parades in nearby cities.

“This is what democracy looks like in the age of COVID, in the age of cries and demands for social justice, and in a time of great economic stress for so many people and small businesses,” says Daniel Folkman from Building Unity.

Bashir Aden

Ohio: Partying like it’s 2020

Faced with the obstacle of social distancing, advocates in Ohio are mobilizing voters through a relatively new method, so-called relational organizing. Rather than canvassing in neighborhoods, volunteers are stationed outside of boards of elections in Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Hamilton (Cincinnati), and Montgomery (Dayton) Counties, encouraging those who’ve just voted to contact friends and families to help establish voting plans.

The Ohio Organizing Collaborative has also held four virtual voter parties thus far, where voters get together over Zoom and reach out to friends and family about their voting plan. Participants use the app OutVote, which curates a contact list from each person’s phone contacts based on public voter registration records; the OOC reports more than 1,400 OutVote users this year. Edwin Fuller, an OOC organizer based in Dayton, shared that these parties have been a popular option with more seasoned voters who are looking for ways to encourage their communities to participate in the election. 

Fuller himself is formerly incarcerated, which spurs his motivation to organize GOTV efforts. “For me especially, in this moment, this is the only way I know I am guaranteed to have a voice in what happens, especially for my people,” he said. “With voting, I’m not a returning citizen, I’m a restored citizen that’s actively a part of the community.”

Heather Gast

Just Media’s mission is to tell the justice stories that define our generation, built around community-centered, impact-driven media and grassroots communications.

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