To be Counted, We Must be Heard

Ella Baker, official of the Southern Conference Educational Fund. January 3, 1968. Photograph courtesy of the Associated Press.

Without exercising one collective voice, we are unable to influence policies and laws that impact our lives.

-Ella Jo Baker

Access to basic human rights is the lesser of the two evils. But what happens when you don’t exercise those basic rights? Consequently, you forfeit the privilege to participate in the conversation.

Ella Josephine Baker (December 13, 1903 – December 13, 1986) is known for her behind-the-scenes contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. Her efforts to organize voter registration drives and raise educational awareness were significant in the 1958 and 1960 elections. With a career as a civil and human rights activist that spanned five decades, Baker strongly believed “voting was key to freedom.”

In 1957, Baker organized the first major campaign for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) called the Crusade for Citizenship.  Launched after the undecided Civil Rights Act lay pending in Congress, the objective for the crusade was to register thousands of disenfranchised voters in time for the elections. The crusade sought to establish voter education clinics throughout the South, raise awareness among African Americans that ‘‘their chances for improvement rest on their ability to vote,’’ and stir the nation’s conscience to change the current conditions.

Hmm… sound familiar? Impromptu voter registration and education centers pop up every election season in front of college campuses and local supermarkets to ensure the disenfranchised voters – specifically youth, people of color, and people in the criminal justice system – have the opportunity to register on the spot.

Yet, even with voter access and convenience, in 2010, non-Latino Whites voted at a higher rate (49 percent), than both Blacks (43 percent) and Latinos (31 percent). Meanwhile, the gaps between those who do not register to vote are at a higher rate in both Blacks and Latino communities. How can we impact these margins? In what ways can we increase participation among registered voters? Simple. Engage them.

People who don’t vote often say they feel disconnected with politicians. Political speech often alienates voters despite the relevance of the issues being debated. While pop-up voter registration centers increase registration numbers of eligible voters, to be sure votes are cast on election day registration must also reinforce this right by:

  1. demonstrating the value of one vote and,
  2. discussing the issues and candidates in a ways that are less overwhelming

Baker’s legacy still lives on with the work of the Ella Baker Center of Human Rights, which continues to speak out for justice, build a green economy, empower voters, build community and invest in young leaders. Here are three other organizations that work to empower and engage voters:

  1. FairVote This nonpartisan organization works as a catalyst for reforming elections to respect every vote and every voice through bold approaches to increase voter turnout, meaningful ballot choices and fair representation.
  2. The League of Women Voters – The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan citizens’ organization that has fought since 1920 to improve government and engage all citizens in the decisions that impact their lives.  The League operates at national, state and local levels through more than 800 state and local Leagues, in all 50 states as well in DC, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Hong Kong.
  3. Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted Peoples Movement– The Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted Peoples Movement adopted a national commitment to register a million new voters from among people with prior convictions or a history of incarceration.

Our fundamental right to vote has to be instilled at the core in order for someone to be empowered by this basic human right. The work still continues, and you can do your part to encourage others.

by Courtney Locus

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16 Comments

  1. Courtney, your piece presents an important point at a very poignant time. With elections just around the corner and a polarized society everyone’s participation in the voting process is key to our future– it not only will have a major national impact but it will influence the global community in a big way.

    Per your thoughtful commentary: I believe that the disenfranchised and disillusioned citizens that have the “right” to vote but don’t are disenfranchised and disillusioned because as a whole they are ignored and disregarded not only during the campaign season but consistently. Not only are many politicians arguing over the “rights” and “benefits” that various groups should or shouldn’t get but they are not engaging the affected in this conversation. How can you truly know the root issues unless you ask those living it? How can you help when you don’t truly know the root issues?

    While there are moments that I think progress is in the pipelines I often find myself asking the same questions regarding this topic: “Where is the public discussion about empowerment and engagement?” Perhaps the line of questioning shouldn’t start with how do we get non-voters to vote but instead how do we get government to recognize and engage non-voters?

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  2. C. Cummings

     /  September 25, 2012

    The author is correct in calling voting a “basic human rights.” Unfortunately, for marginalized groups I think there is overwhelming suspicion that their vote won’t pay-off. Certain collective actions, such as the recent battle over voter restrictions, only drives this distrust further home. The efforts of Florida’s Republicans to restrict early voter registration when Blacks vote at almost double the amount of Whites in the first five days of early voting–the same days that Republicans were moving to eliminate. A judge shot this down on the basis of discrimination. But that the effort was enforced says much about how far we’ve come since Ella Baker, or rather how much further we still have to go. Who are the Ella Bakers of today? How are voting rights being taught and instilled in our public schools?

    Lastly, the restrictions placed on formerly incarcerated and convicted peoples is worrisome for a state like New York considering the 2010 ruling that declared Three Strikes law unconstitutional. That means a significant population of young, Black men who would otherwise be in jail are not, but are still restricted in voting based on prior convictions.

    2008 is a sobering reminder. That year 130 million people turned out to vote in the Obama/McCain election. It was the largest voter turnout in US history. However, let’s compare that number to the amount of 2008’s eligible US voters–207,643,594.

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  3. Imani

     /  September 26, 2012

    Courtney this snapshot of history is viable but unfortunately forgotten in the communities that need this point of reference the most. The upcoming election has brought issues of voter suppression to the forefront and voter engagement is necessary to combat it. I believe that not only should the national government engage disenfranchised communities but so should local governments. It seems that there is a larger emphasis on voter registration around presidential election time but efforts should be made to the same degree in local government as well. Our city council representatives, assembly people, mayors and governors have an immediate impact on the decisions made for the communities we live in. Maybe if communities feel more empowered in their local communities, it will translate to their participation on a national platform.

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  4. Tanzeem

     /  September 26, 2012

    is voting even worth anything in the system in which we live? i think the 2004 election proved that it isn’t. also, for those in society who are marginalized already, does it make sense to push them to vote to keep in place a system of oppression that has no intention of creating any type of change other than a reform which is not going to change the circumastances of their lives and instead will throw them breadcrumbs to keep them quiet and quell there anger? i dont think so, instead shouldnt we be building in our communities to radically change the system and do away with the two party pro business, pro capitalist entities that exist? i think this would serve oppressed communities much better than voting in the sham of an electoral system that we have in place. we call ourselves a democracy, why because we vote 25 times per century, what a joke, lets put our efforts into doing away with the system, not going through the motions and keeping it on life support.

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  5. Analia

     /  September 27, 2012

    I’ve always found it very strange that every four years, at many subway stations and street corners, people are out registering voters in preparation for the upcoming election and then, immediately after the election, they disappear. I agree with many of the previous comments that in order for voter registration efforts to show sustainable impact, communities have to be educated around how national and local government operates and what has the most direct effect on their daily lives.

    I think the voter registration effort would see greater returns if it was focused on getting people to vote at the local level and understand what impact, good and bad, local politics can have on them and their families. To Imani’s point, if communities feel empowered by small victories at the local level, perhaps they would be motivated to engage at the national level.

    Additionally, I can understand the point of view that engaging in the current electoral system seems futile. However, I think that it is easier to revolutionize a system from within than from the outside. If we aren’t engaged in the electoral process I don’t think we can really understand what it takes to create a just system.

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  6. Mio

     /  September 27, 2012

    It is very upsetting that many states laws are trying to make it difficult for certain groups not to vote. I agree that the system is currently flawed but I strongly believe that it is crucial for underrepresented groups to go out and vote. Elections are really the only time when politicians are listening to win people’s vote. If Latinos and Blacks got together and voted for a third party, (i.e. socialist or green party) that third party could win, or at least show the country that the two party system is no longer the only way. There are so many people that are tired of politics and are disillusioned and no longer want to be a part of it. I say, it is important to fight the system but with a vote.

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  7. Courtney

     /  September 27, 2012

    I think it’s very easy to feel disconnected from the political process. Maybe the solution to increasing voter participation is to figure out a way to demonstrate the impact that the current political process has on our everyday lives. While I agree with Tanzeem’s position on pushing for widespread change I think that participation in the current process will make for a better stance on holding politicians responsible to our communities.

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  8. Hillary

     /  September 27, 2012

    To me, the ritual of voting holds deeper significance beyond exercising the rights and civic obligations of a democracy. My grandmother was Alaskan Native. Born in 1910, she lived through colonization, assimilation, segregation and other forms of institutionalized racism. Historically, Alaskan Natives, much like Native Americans, were excluded from the democratic process because they were not considered citizens. When the US passed the Indian Citizenship Act (1924) which granted citizenship to all of America’s indigenous people, local government promptly retaliated with the Alaska Voters Literacy Act (1925), legislation designed to suppress the votes of Alaska’s indigenous people. The scars of historic trauma persist for generations. When I vote, as my Grandmother’s legacy, I feel as though some mild form of justice for her is realized through me. But I completely understand the feelings of disconnect and alienation people may feel from the election process. I think we tend to forget that democracy does not begin and end with voting. Participating in democratic actions includes organizing, assembling, and petitioning as well as voting. But we have to ensure that when people do show up to vote, they are not turned away by arbitrary and unconstitutional State laws.

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  9. Kristina

     /  September 27, 2012

    Courtney, I think your topic is great since now is the time to gather those that aren’t registered and educate others to get out there and vote. It is important to remind citizens that by not voting you are forfeiting your right to participate. Ella Jo Baker is a very important model in this case since she empathized the importance of teaching people how to look to themselves . By offering citizens the right tools they will be better equip and more confident to make it to the polls. I also agree that this should be a constant decision to exercise your right to vote and not just during the presidential elections. it is important to get more people engaged in their own community.

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  10. Daniel

     /  September 27, 2012

    I agree with your last statement, we should all do our part to encourage people to engage in the process. That is the only way we can held politicians accountable for the decisions they make that are affecting directly our communities. The power is on our hands, by voting (exercising our basic human right), we are able to hire and fire politicians as we see convenient to our issues and communities. In addition, by engaging others into the political process, we can fight those whose main objective is to disenfranchise African Americans and other racial/ethnic groups from the political process.

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  11. Jamarla Alston

     /  October 2, 2012

    A key development in Pennsylvania: voters can vote in this upcoming election even if they don’t have the newly required ids. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/03/us/pennsylvania-judge-delays-implementation-of-voter-id-law.html?_r=0&hp=&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1349201097-jGojWOSgikzlUDZTnd2NRQ

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  12. Robin Pagliuco

     /  October 2, 2012

    Well written and timely, as we approach yet another election in which many of our citizens will be excluded from the democratic process. To fully participate in self-determination we must be not only allowed to vote, but be informed and encouraged to do so. Thank you for offering ways for us to get involved!

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  13. Michelle G.

     /  October 4, 2012

    Another issue that I always think about come election times is educating the younger or new voters on the issues at hand. I remember the first time I could vote was during the 2004 elections. I tried to jump right in and learn about all of the issues both candidates were discussing but it was hard to relate to these large policy debates. I admit, I was confused about how these issues affected me directly. Why isn’t there more education about current government policy and issues in schools? We learn about american history in schools, but there should be more discussion on what is currently going on. There are organizations out there that are trying to connect and educate the young voters like The League of Young Voters, and Rock The Vote, but i think there needs to be more. It is hard to jump in as an adult and get involved in politics and the voting process if you don’t have a base, and i think we need to make more of an effort to educate the young upcoming voters on what they are voting on.

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  14. Natasha

     /  October 4, 2012

    Voting is a right given to Americans in our Constitution, or at least it is in the amendments. Yet, there is still a large percentage of Americans that don’t vote or are not allowed access to voting due to polling rules and regulations. On the other hand, there is an overwhelming amount of people who feel that their vote won’t really make a difference, and to some extent, this is true. If you are voting blue in a traditionally red state, your vote may not make a huge difference. But, if there is any chance of making a difference in the long run, then we must vote, even if you don’t see the change happen right away. However, traditionally, the polling laws that keep individuals from the vote are aimed at making it difficult for undereducated and underpriviledged minorities to exercise their right in engaging in participatory democracy. But, when you take into account the citizenship criteria, which in some states require a driver’s license, this even deters the elderly and others who don’t drive. In order to change this, we need to make a bigger, more unified push to affect voting reform.

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  15. Emily S

     /  October 4, 2012

    What a great article, just in time for the elections! I especially liked your comment about the need to ensure that we aren’t just focusing on increasing the number of voters registered but trying to increase the involvement and connection people have with the process so people actually show up on election day. I had many friends in college that registered to vote because of the pressure of family or of the various groups getting in their faces on campus, but come election day they were too busy, felt too uninformed, or just plain didn’t care. As you said, the right to vote has to be “instilled at the core” for people to feel the need to exercise that right. The organizations you gave seem to be doing a good job at that, and if each of us takes a moment to have conversations even in our own communities, hopefully we will begin to see change.

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  16. Thalma

     /  October 11, 2012

    I think that Ella Baker is the perfect example of what we all should do to improve our world. She fought for our Human Rigths without having protagonism. As the author of the article said, she was a behind-the-scene activist. This is how we should be working daily. Work as a behind-the-scene activist on the human rights,mstarting by respecting others rights and fought for those Rigths that are not being respected, in Ella Baker times, was the right to vote. In this era, a lot of different topics are worth to fight for.
    As Ella said “voting was the key to freedom” nowadays we should found the key to end racism. And this blogs are a great way to encourage people to post their ideas and their believes.
    In my opinion this is a great article that shows the results and efforts of a great woman who fought others Rigths and the nation Future. She is a great example to follow.

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