By Kristen Clarke
In a year defined by distress and tragedy, no one has felt that chaos more painfully than the Black community, We’ve seen the coronavirus pandemic tear through our neighborhoods at a devastating rate. Job losses have surged, evictions are looming, and economic damage has mounted. And the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake have brought the crisis of police violence into stark, horrifying relief for the broad American public.
Yet at the same time, we have also seen a nearly unprecedented explosion of protests in virtually every American city. In the face of militarized, mobilized opposition, we have seen our community take to the streets and demand justice for victims and reform of broken systems.
As Election Day nears and tens of millions of Black voters head to the polls to turn those demands into reality, we may have one more obstacle to overcome: voter intimidation.
Our community has been forced to deal with legal (and illegal) hurdles on our path to the ballot box since the very moment we won the right to vote. No matter what it said on paper, our ability to vote has never been guaranteed. This year, we should expect to see desperate 11th hour attempts to stifle and silence our voices.
The reason is simple: Our votes matter and they can make the difference in races all across America. The power of our collective ballots is just as strong as the power of our collective protests.
Those are the tools that — together — will bring about the change and transformation we want to see.
Of course, the outcome of the presidential race will have profound impacts on our community. But, so too will countless down-ballot races. On November 3, we will elect District Attorneys who will make decisions about how to enforce laws in our communities. We will elect sheriffs who run jails and make decisions about policies like solitary confinement and how to treat those who are incarcerated. We will elect mayors who will choose who leads our police departments. We will elect City Councilors who determine the budget size for local police departments. We will elect local and state judges in some states who help determine who are charged with ensuring equal justice under law. Simply put, the ballot is an important vehicle to promoting accountability and addressing demands for criminal justice reform that have been at the heard of this year’s historic protests.
Just as we saw during the Civil Rights Movement, our movement today must be fought on the streets, in the courts, and through the power of our ballots.
That is why my organization, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, leads the Election Protection program today. Election Protection is the nation’s largest and longest-running, non-partisan voter protection program, anchored by the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline. And, given the extraordinary challenges that we face during the pandemic, it’s why we have more than quadrupled the number of legal volunteers supporting that hotline to 23,000 legal volunteers, seven days a week.
Since the pandemic, we have mounted nearly 3 dozen voting rights lawsuits to ensure that Black voters and all voters will be able to vote this season. We have successfully sued to defeat restrictions such as notary and witness requirements for absentee voters, we have fought to ensure that voters will receive notice and an opportunity to cure any issue that might arise with an absentee ballot and we have fought to ensure that absentee ballots would be available to all voters, without limitation. We have worked to beat back the efforts of operatives who are trying to limit access to drop boxes and more.
Since July 1, we’ve received more than 100,000 calls from voters seeking help with vote by mail, those wondering whether the rhetorical claims that vote by mail is not safe or secure are true, and voters seeking information on drop box options for returning ballots and more. We’ve also requested some reports of voter intimidation and voter suppression, which are not uncommon during the 11th hour of an election season and which are, far too often, targeted at Black voters and voters of color. Robocalls seeking to frighten voters, social media posts imparting false information, and disinformation campaigns targeting Black voters with inaccurate information about vote by mail. We see these thinly veiled schemes for what they are — attempts to deny Black people voice in our democracy. They haven’t stopped us in the past and should not stop us now. We are here to help.
This election is one of the most consequential elections of our lifetime. It is a capstone to a year marked by historic protests and an unprecedented pandemic — two events that raise profound questions regarding systemic racism, and the health, safety and quality of lives of Black people in our country. As this year comes to a close, the power of our ballots will prove to be a critical tool in our arsenal as we seek to ensure that Black Lives Matter and achieve those goals aimed at elevating the standing of Black people in our democracy. The collective might of Black protests and Black votes are forces to be reckoned with.
With just several days remaining in this election season, let’s use the ballot to underscore, in no uncertain terms, that Black Lives Matter and Black Voters Matter.
Kristen Clarke is president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which leads Election Protection, a non-partisan voter protection program anchored by the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline.