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Protecting the black vote from suppression

Days after Barack Obama won the 2008 election, his incoming chief of staff Rahm Emanuel delivered one of the most potent lines of the Great Recession, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that [is] it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not before.” The Obama administration then went on to make history with an aggressive legislative agenda, including passage of near-universal health coverage, a goal elusive to American presidents since Teddy Roosevelt.

Now we’re witnessing how the Emanuel axiom is on the verge of a pernicious twist. With a nation in the midst of an epic and unprecedented upheaval, the black vote could be under threat of suppression. 

Voter ID laws, the purging of millions of voters and other efforts designed to “combat” phantom voting fraud have already severely restricted voting rights for black and brown voters in southern and some western and midwestern states. Now, after what appeared to be willful neglect of the virus itself, we are about to experience willful obstruction of efforts to stop its effect on the democratic process.

The Wisconsin legislature last month tried to use the pandemic to keep turnout low throughout the state, hoping it would give them an edge in the election of its justices. Fortunately, that move backfired (though not without significant burden to the voters who had to turn out mid-pandemic at few available polling places) and the progressive judge won decisively. But the legislature’s intent was clear and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld them. There’s no guarantee we won’t see it happen again this fall.

Whether the pandemic is in ebb or flow in November, Election Day won’t be moved; even President Trump can’t change the date. But if the virus is flowing, will anyone come out to vote? The current phase of the pandemic is hitting black and Latino voters harder, some of whom are forced to work in jobs that make it almost impossible to physically distance and protect themselves.

At least for now, nationwide mail-in voting and other interventions to ensure universal voting are being met with a thud by the White House and Congressional Republicans.  

President Trump even said the quiet part out loud at the end of March, “They had things, levels of voting in the third virus response bill that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

If we want to prevent what right now appears to be the Republican game plan — quashing mail-in voting and other efforts to keep black turnout high — we have to radically reinvent the way we turn out the black vote. 

It starts with ending the traditional turnstile approach to the black vote: a big October push in beauty shops, churches and canvassing door to door. That’s out the window. We have to start right now to guarantee black folks’ access to the ballot. That means aggressive action from elected officials and on-the-ground (or virtual) organizers shifting strategies to combat the disruption that Republicans are sure to inject into the mix.  

First, we have to zero in on mail-in voting. Right now, 29 states plus Washington, D.C. offer no-excuse absentee ballots and three more use vote by mail as the only way to vote. We need to raise that number to 50, ideally mandated in the next COVID-19 response legislation. If that effort fails, every single progressive and, in fact, pro-democracy organization in America needs to be part of the mail-in movement, working with governors, secretaries of state and Congressional leaders to cajole or mandate it. This may be the most important step we can take.

We need look no further than the Wisconsin primary where vote by mail led to the defeat of the incumbent Republican judge, who was assumed to be safe.

Next, we have to shift to digital organizing for registration and assistance with voting, by mail or however it can be done. This step is particularly important, as aggressive purging of voter rolls in the past two years has put us even further behind going into 2020. One innovative step would be to enlist young people, many of whom have a suddenly unscheduled summer, to lead the effort.

Finally, we need to include COVID-19 in our electoral messaging about why voting is critical for people of color, this year in particular. It is our democratic responsibility to use the ballot box to make our voices heard on what has been an abject failure of leadership on an epidemic that is disproportionately affecting black America.    

These steps would ensure the integrity of our democracy, even in the midst of one of the greatest crises our nation has ever faced. Republicans are already gearing up to frame them instead as a plot of the left-wing and the “deep state,” even with President Trump’s confession that mail-in elections are truly about making sure every American can vote. 

Our nation is already facing tens of thousands dead and a long, deep recession, all of which will hit black America the hardest. Let’s not top it off with a death blow to black participation in our democracy.

Quentin James is a true visionary and proponent for community empowerment. He is the founder of The Collective PAC, a political action committee focused on building black political power by electing black candidates on the local, state and federal level. Quentin is also the co-founder of Inclusv, a diversity hiring initiative that places talented staffers of color into campaigns and advocacy organizations throughout the nation.

Tags 2020 election African American vote Barack Obama Black voters Donald Trump Election Day purging voter rolls Voter registration Voter Rolls Voter suppression voters

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