As early voting continues to shatter records, amid a surge in domestic pandemic infections, the Black press as well as African American political experts and leaders are warning the electorate to remain vigilant because voter suppression is alive, well, and in plain view.
“We can’t take anything for granted,” said Elinor Tatum, publisher of the New York Amsterdam News. “Those long lines you see across the nation, predominantly in communities of color, are not just evidence of voter enthusiasm, but examples of what voter suppression looks like when citizens are made to wait hours on end to exercise their franchise.”
To drive that message home, Tatum and nine other Black publishers involved in the Word In Black collaborative, in partnership with the Local Media Association, hosted a virtual, live-streamed event on Oct. 20, “Voting With Purpose,” where activists and luminaries such as Bakari T. Sellers, Susan Smith Richardson, Wes Moore and Kristen Clarke highlighted their personal experiences with voter suppression and the ways it’s manifesting in this crucial election, and solutions to these challenges.
In a lively and passionate hour-long discussion, seven leaders discussed the active efforts to suppress Black votes and what’s at stake in the 2020 election.
What’s at stake (or: A legacy of voter suppression)
“Elections matter. Who’s sitting in seats matters,” said Wes Moore, CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation. “There is no greater power that we have right now than to express our wills and our hopes as a people.”
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, framed the size of the challenge faced by Black voters.
“We have 50 states struggling to figure out how to safely conduct an election in a pandemic,” she said. “There are states with egregious histories of voter discrimination that have dug their heels in.”
Clarke said her organization has filed nearly three dozen lawsuits on behalf of voter rights during the pandemic.
Leigh Chapman, director of the Voting Rights Program, agreed on the threats. She noted that “voters are at higher risk of being disenfranchised” as we enter the second presidential election cycle without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. But Chapman said the news isn’t all bad. She cited record early voting — 35 million votes cast by Oct. 20 — and added, “states have increased the options for voting” due to the pandemic.
The role of the Black press
Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., President and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, spoke to the purpose of the Black press, saying, “We not only report the news, we also have to be an advocate for freedom, justice, and equality.”
Susan Smith Richardson, CEO of the Center for Public Integrity, emphasized how important it was for journalists to frame this moment by including the “historical context of the contested nature of the struggle to vote.” Richardson stressed the value of benchmarks, using the example of the impacts on voting of the 2012 rollbacks to the Voting Rights Act. She urged journalists to remember: “It’s not just about telling the stories but using data to help people make better decisions in their own lives.”
“This election is not just between Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” said Sellers, an attorney and CNN political commentator. “It’s between Trump and Biden … and the couch. We have a long way to go when it comes to talking to Black people, and talking to Black voters.”
Voting with purpose
Panelists shared strategies for making sure every vote counts and also shared their reasons for being passionate about voting with purpose.
“Think about those whom you’re voting on behalf of,” advised Moore. “I’m voting not just for myself but on behalf of my 9-year-old daughter, on behalf of my 6-year-old son. That’s my job — to make sure that their voices are heard, and their futures are protected.”
“We need more people to leverage their platform networks to push for social change,” said musician and songwriter Nolan Williams, Jr. “That’s what inspired me to write this song and produce this video (I Have a Right to Vote.) We wanted to get the message out that we should not allow anything or anyone to impede us from exercising a right that had been so long and so hard fought for.”
Chapman had specific advice for voters.
“People need to make a plan to vote, in the way that makes them feel most safe,” adding “it’s critical that people cast their votes early” because that allows time to fix a ballot if there are any issues.
“For the Black community, the antidote for voter suppression is massive voter turnout,” Dr. Chavis said. “I’m actually optimistic, not pessimistic because I think these voter suppression tactics have given us energy. There would not be efforts to suppress our vote if our vote were not important.”
Panelists and publishers alike were able to enumerate the pernicious history of voter suppression and how some in power seek to infect the 2020 election. But they also explained the myriad ways communities can meet and overcome these challenges. First and foremost, vote! Vote like your life and the lives of your loved ones depended on it.
And as Dr. Chavis reminded us, “Black votes matter. Black press matters. Black lives matter.”