Black Voters: This Election is About More than Two Candidates
Once again this election, the power of the Black vote is going to be a deciding factor in who will lead our country. As a voting bloc that can be counted on to turn out in force for our chosen presidential nominee, it’s critical that we show up on election day and continue to gain the power we have been accumulating as an electorate. However, even though it’s important that we make our power known by voting for the next leader of our country, it’s just as important that we don’t stop there. We need to make our power known at all levels of government and vote in leaders at the local and state level who will usher in policies that benefit our communities and protect our children. In fact, those votes might be even more important for the future of our communities than who becomes Commander-in-chief.
Let’s be clear, the presidency is important. We need to come together with one resounding voice and reject Donald Trump, a leader who seeks to spread racism, sexism, bigotry and fear. But beyond electing Hillary Clinton, if Black people really want to see a government that reflects us and passes laws that help our communities, we need to start worrying more about the candidates who are running for our school boards, city councils, county commissions and state legislatures.
Black people have been accused in the past of forgetting our state and local candidates and by and large that’s been true. While we’ve been focused predominantly on the top of the ticket, we’ve neglected candidates that are making the policies that affect our communities, our cities and our states. That’s unfortunately led to officials who’ve passed legislation that marginalizes Black people and threatens our rights.
One just needs to look at what’s happened to voting rights in states where there is Republican control. For instance, in North Carolina restrictive voting laws have decreased the number of early voting sites by 27 compared to 2012. In several big Republican-controlled counties, including Guilford and Mecklenburg, restrictive early voting schedules and fewer polling locations led to a significant decrease in Black turnout. In fact, Guilford County went from having 16 locations to one. And Mecklenburg went from having 22 in 2012 to just four this year. How do we know that these voter suppression tactics were a major factor lowering early Black voter turnout? In the 58 North Carolina counties where there were no voter suppression tactics and the area wasn’t affected by Hurricane Matthew, Black people turned out at 91 percent of the rate for 2012 (as of Oct. 31). In the suppressed counties? 72 percent compared to 2012. Even in the counties affected by Hurricane Matthew that didn’t have voter suppression tactics, Black voters turned out at a rate of 79 percent compared to the same 72 percent of Black turnout for counties that had both. These numbers are very telling. Make no mistake, this act of decreasing early Black turnout was intentional. Lawmakers in these places wanted to make it harder for us to vote. They don’t want us to exercise our power.
Criminal justice reform is another big issue that Black communities have been discussing at length recently. The systematic targeting of Black people by our justice system is abhorrent and something that needs to be changed. But how many Black voters are aware that about 30 percent of our nation’s prosecutors are up for reelection tomorrow night? These are the people who decide whether or not to charge a person with a crime, what the charges will be and have a lot of influence over the sentence, if someone is convicted. If we want to reform our criminal justice system, we need to be acutely aware of who these people are, make sure that the bad eggs have an opponent going into either their primary race or on election day and vote them out. To see what Black people can do when we organize and demand justice, look no further than Cook County, Ill. where this year Black organizers were instrumental in ousting State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez after she delayed the indictment of the officer who shot and killed Laquan McDonald. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Black voters also denied reelection to the district attorney who failed to bring charges against the officer responsible for killing Tamir Rice. We can change these things in our communities, but it starts first at the local level with the officials who make and carry out the laws that affect our communities.
If we really want to affect lasting change, we need to vote more Black people into office. Right now, there simply aren’t enough of us. My organization, Emerge America, recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office. We’ve had some exceptional Black women come through our program who have gone on to be exceptional leaders in their communities across the country. They are bringing forward the change that is needed on the ground and in our cities and states. For example, this year in Kentucky one of Emerge’s alumnae, Attica Scott, just beat a 20+ year white male incumbent to become the first Black woman elected to the state legislature in over 20 years. In San Francisco, Board of Supervisors members London Breed and Malia Cohen passed family leave legislation that also includes same sex couples. Our women in the Oregon State House ushered through a minimum wage increase and passed bills that guarantee access to birth control for women. In Arizona and Maryland, our women in the state legislatures are championing policies that help victims of sexual and domestic violence. And they are just the start.
This election we also have some amazing Black women running for local and state office that could really make a change in their communities. In San Francisco, Lateefah Simon is running for the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors (BART). If she is elected, she will be the only Black woman on the board, which makes most of the major decisions for a system that is essential for many minority and low-income residents to get to and from work each day. In Colorado, Leslie Herod is running to become the first Black lesbian in the state legislature and Dominique Jackson is running to fill a state legislature spot that is being vacated by another Black woman — which is so important if we are going to continue to build on the gains Black people in office have made. In Wisconsin, Latoya Johnson is a current state representative who is running to move up to the state senate, which is an important example of Black people running for office and moving up the pipeline. In Maryland, Shebra Evans is running for the Montgomery County Board of Education, where she would be the only Black woman on the board. And in Baltimore, City Council candidate Shannon Sneed just had a baby and campaigned while pregnant — showing the fortitude of Black women to overcome any obstacle and that the voices of mothers are needed in our government. These examples are just a few of the hundreds of local and state offices Black people are running for around the country and why it’s so important we pay attention to all levels of our government and vote in leaders who will represent our interests.
So my advice to Black voters out there is vote the top of the ticket, but don’t stop there! If you want better schools and more school choice, learn about your school board candidates. If you want a better minimum wage, pay attention to who wants to be your mayor or on your city council. If you want to stop restrictive voting laws and end institutionalized discrimination look at who is running for local government and the state legislature. To stop criminal injustice, vote in fair district attorneys and judges. All these things matter, and with our united voice, we can change our country from the top down AND from the ground up.