“Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it,” the civil rights icon wrote in an piece for The New York Times, published posthumously last week.
The 14th and 15th Amendments established voting rights after the Civil War, but a series of laws put in place afterward, from literacy tests and poll taxes, suppressed the vote.
In 2012, for the first time, the gap between registered Black and White voters nearly closed entirely — briefly fulfilling one of the primary goals of the Voting Rights Act.
But since 2012, the gap has widened again across all demographic groups, but especially for Black voters. In the 2018 midterm elections, 71% of white Americans were registered to vote, while Black registration dropped to 64%, according to Census data. Less than 55% of Hispanic and Asian Americans were registered to vote in 2018.
“The stakes are quite high,” Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, a former Louisiana state lawmaker and associate professor at Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh told CNN. “Voting equals power. And once you are able to elect the candidates of your choice, that means you have to be given a seat at the political table.”
The registration gap has also become increasingly notable in a handful of battleground states that will be crucial to the outcome of this year’s election. Swing states like Arizona, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania have experienced some of the largest decreases in voter registration among Black and Hispanic voters between the 2014 and 2018 midterms. Census data shows that voter registration has increased for white voters in each of those six battlegrounds over the same period, however.
Pandemic has made registering voters that much harder
The registration declines since 2012 are particularly concerning for voting advocates because new voter registrations in 2020 and typical outreach ahead of a presidential election have been almost entirely disrupted by the pandemic.
The typical ways that voters have registered in the past have become nearly non-existent amid the pandemic. Ahead of the 2016 election, Census data shows that a majority of voters registered in person through a government office, such as their local Department of Motor Vehicles, or through another community venue, such as a school or hospital.
The continuing spread of Covid-19 has limited access to those government and public offices, some of which have closed altogether. Voter drives, door-knocking and other methods of in-person registration are also much more difficult, if not impossible, this election cycle.
In 2016, Black voters were more likely to register in person and were among the least likely to register online or by mail — two of the safest options to register this year amid the coronavirus pandemic. Hispanic and Asian voters, however, registered online or by mail at higher rates than all other voters in 2016.
“The anniversary of the Voting Rights Act reminds us that even though we are grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, police brutality, and racial injustice, we are reminded of the sacrifices of people like John Lewis and his peers, and encouraged to stay in the fight to help every eligible voter get registered and ready to vote,” said Stephanie Young, the group’s chief officer of culture, communications and media partnerships.
Garces said that registering is not only about engaging the voters but capitalizing on political power for historically marginalized voting blocs.
“(W)e hope that we are building political capital while we are also doing this work so that on the day after the election, we’ve engaged the community, we’ve informed the community and they want to see these changes happen,” Garces said.
Registration is a key first step
In the 2016 presidential election, 4% of all registered voters who didn’t vote said that an issue with their registration prevented them from casting their ballots, according to Census data. Eligible Hispanic voters reported the highest rate of voter registration issues. More than 5% of registered Hispanic citizens who didn’t vote said the primary barrier was a problem with their registration.
“Voter registration opens up a pathway for us to demonstrate our agency and also for us to influence and leverage our power. To shift the process so that we are reducing harm that is happening in our community, that we are shaping public policy that impacts our community and that we are putting people in office so we can have a more reflective democracy,” Brown said.
Black Voters Matter has voter registration statewide operations in states like Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Florida as well as targeted operations in places like Houston and Hudson, New York.
“It can’t just be the act of registering, it has to be a part of the pathway of people feeling a sense of their own power,” Brown said.