An Open Letter to Everyone Who Won’t Stop Telling Me to Vote
Voting is a tool for harm reduction, but soon it could be all that’s left in an ever-shrinking box
Dear Democrats, Liberals, and Members of the #Resistance,
In the wake of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, every liberal person in my life — and probably yours — is full of anger at the Republican Party, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, and the 49 Republican Senators who voted to confirm him to the Supreme Court. That anger is valid and important, but I don’t want to talk about his induction into the Old Boys Club right now. (For thoughts on that, I recommend these thorough pieces from the last few days.)
I want to talk to you about some of the things that got us here, and more importantly, I want to talk to you about what will get us out. I want to talk about how Democratic Senator Joe Manchin joined retiring coward Jeff Flake and “pro-choice” Susan Collins (both Republicans) to provide the decisive votes that put Kavanaugh over the finish line and into a lifetime appointment after clearly lying under oath, concealing thousands of documents related to his past political work, and providing an unprecedented partisan tirade that even conservatives found disqualifying — and that’s all without considering the credible testimony of his alleged assault on Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
Before we get started, an important aside: I have chosen to direct the majority of my current anger about injustice, apathy, and oppressive systems of power at the Democratic party and the liberals in my life because I believe in their capacity for change. I believe they can hear me and understand my anger much more than I believe in my ability to be heard by Republicans and social conservatives, face-to-face or online.
I’m not going to magically convince someone to change when they believe my humanity is less than theirs on the grounds of my identity, sexuality, gender, kinkiness, or whatever else falls outside of their moral framework. I might have a chance to change people who claim to care about my safety and humanity, even when their choices clearly demonstrate they are not in support of concrete actions that would make my life as a marginalized person safer.
For example, here are a few things that would make my everyday life as a transgender person safer, all of which can be done without Congress: making single stall restrooms gender-neutral, adding your pronouns to an email signature, and changing intake paperwork to reflect LGBTQ people. All of these changes would take almost no practical time or energy to implement, but remain controversial to many people because our identities as trans people are seen as “inherently political” — which means helping us is considered a polarized political action instead of basic decency.
The same goes for changing police protocols to track police brutality (rather than waiting for a British newspaper to do it), or allowing incarcerated people to use the phone and have access to basic hygienic materials free of charge. These adjustments aren’t the overhaul the system needs, but the fact that small changes are considered improbable serves as an effective policy stonewall that makes any substantive changes to the underlying system itself seem impossible.
If we can’t even make progress on practical solutions that have almost no impact on anyone other the oppressed people they’d help, how can we change things where powerful people do stand to lose something, like their money, their exclusive access, or their control of media and government?
Similar to discussions on gun control, taxes, or the basic structures of government, there seems to be no “right time” to discuss voting rights in the United States. In so-called “off years” like 2017, practically no one is paying attention and the momentum dies. And as the midterm or presidential election begins to loom, potential electoral consequences stymie any conversation about changing our voting system. There will always be a financial or political reason to not talk about this.
With the U.S. midterm elections coming up, countless liberal people on social media, political news shows, and in-person have been telling folks some form of, “Don’t boo, vote,” as Obama famously said at the 2016 Democratic National Convention to the crowd booing Donald Trump.
“Don’t boo, vote” is supposed to be a good enough solution for the people who are angry about the nomination of Kavanaugh and the backlash against #metoo — after all, “It’s a very scary time for young men in America,” as Trump recently said in response to the current climate of accountability for sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. This latest failure of our democratic guardrails comes after years of systemic failures that have continued to push the country away from civil rights, democratic norms, and a functioning system of elections.
When you, a well-meaning progressive person (probably white, probably middle- to upper-class, probably college educated), tell angry marginalized people to “just vote,” you are supporting the Republican scheme to convince the country that when poor people, people of color, disabled people, queer people, and religious minorities don’t vote, it’s because they “don’t care about politics” or that they are “too lazy,” they “don’t deserve to vote because of jail time,” or they “are not invested in serious governing work.”
This framing of our voting gap implies that by not voting, marginalized groups are responsible for violence and oppression against them when they are not protected by government, police, legal systems, or the private sector. This is nothing short of victim blaming and gaslighting on a massive scale. You are helping the Republicans do it.
Democrats love to talk about how half of the country didn’t vote, but conveniently leave out that the half who didn’t vote are disproportionately queer, disabled, poor, and people of color. These groups are disproportionately more likely to either be unable to vote or see no reason to vote because in their actual lived experience, the practical outcomes of voting either don’t exist, or aren’t visible in the daily survival process of marginalization and extreme poverty.
Democrats love to wag a finger at people who don’t vote, instead of looking in the mirror at why people who are marginalized but able to vote (are not incarcerated, can afford an I.D., have an address to send a ballot to, have a polling place near them, are able to take time off, etc.) still decide that choosing not to vote is better than supporting them.
Democrats love to talk about “getting out the vote,” but won’t challenge corporate power through legislation that would enable the working poor to make it to the polls without losing income, because they are more concerned with maintaining corporate donors through their public image as a “moderate” than actually expanding voting access.
Democrats continually have their asses saved by women of color who do vote — most recently, when they showed up for underdog Doug Jones to save Alabama from being represented by an actual pedophile — then they fail to uplift women of color to positions of national, public leadership because they are worried women of color won’t bring the mythical “Obama-Trump” white male voter in Pennsylvania back to the Democratic Party.
Democrats love to blame depressed turnout among people of color for their continual failures on Election Day, but refuse to address the systems that contribute to a depressed turnout like the prison industrial complex, poverty, voting disenfranchisement, and lack of public transit — that’s in addition to deeper systemic issues of justice, like our broken immigration system that offers no representation for undocumented people, who pay over 9 billion dollars in income tax, but have no formal representation to decide where that money is going. The United States’ continued colonization of Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are also a massive problem that remains much harder to address without federal voting representation for those colonial territories.
Democrats love to blame millennials for not voting, instead of asking themselves why millennials won’t vote for them, and responding to that inquiry by changing their policies to better match the politics of younger, more progressive demographics.
The Democratic Party is seeing the logical end of a sorting process that started with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, continued with Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” and was solidified by Reagan’s landslide over Walter Mondale in 1984. The Republicans have been leveraging misplaced white rage for decades. It’s time for the Democratic Party to recognize that choosing to pander to that same group is what keeps progressives from enthusiastically supporting them.
The Democratic Party’s mask of white supremacy is slipping, and I hope it will soon fall all the way off so we can address this monster directly and in public. Simply being “Not Republican” isn’t enough to win anymore. Democrats must stop chasing ”Obama-Trump” voters and stop letting white people who resist that strategy hold the party hostage. If a potential Democratic voter is one #blacklivesmatter tweet, police reform policy, or transgender rights bill away from becoming a Republican, let them go be a Republican already.
If the Democrats want any chance of overcoming the immense power of gerrymandering, a gutted Voting Rights Act, and the collusion between political and corporate power, all without the free press coverage that comes with saying outrageous and bigoted things like Trump, there must be a reckoning within the Democratic Party to turn straight white cisgender leadership over to people with more of a plan than being the #Resistance™ in name but not in action.
An Elected Government Is Not Necessarily a Democratic One
Voter suppression through legal, political, and interpersonal means can work to undermine a process that is democratic in name, but not in practice. With most elections, the margin of victory is small enough that even a one or two percent margin won through voter suppression is enough for widespread effects that can further entrench dominant power and enable the erosion of democratic norms and systems of formal accountability.
While the United States is popularly known as the world’s first “modern democracy” after overthrowing the monarchy of the British Empire, our country is hardly a democracy now, and has never been one. The voting process was originally limited to white, land-owning men, then eventually extended to all white men. Voting did finally expand to include “everyone” — at least in theory — through a civil war and Amendments 15, 17, 19, 23, 24, and 26, in addition to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In practice, however, voter suppression, white terrorism, and lack of federal enforcement worked together to ensure that marginalized people could never truly address their oppression through the new political representation they could theoretically access.
We are a country of minority rule by a group that has maintained its power through slavery, genocide, violence, terrorism, lynching, sexual assault, class oppression, voter suppression, and a near-total control of all areas of politics in every state for all of U.S. history. This was perfectly summed up this summer by Rebecca Traister in The Cut:
“White men are at the center [of American culture], our normative citizen, despite being only around a third of the nation’s population. Their outsize power is measurable by the fact that they still — nearly 140 years after the passage of the 15th Amendment, not quite 100 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment, and more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts — hold roughly two-thirds of elected offices in federal, state, and local legislatures. We have had 92 presidents and vice-presidents. One-hundred percent of them have been men, and more than 99 percent white men.
But it’s not just in the numbers; it’s also in the quotidian realities of living in this country. The suffocating power of our minority rule is evidenced by the fact that we’re always busy worrying about the humanity — the comfort and the dignity — of white men, at the same time discouraging disruptive challenge to their authority.”
In just the last few weeks, we have seen Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, enact voter suppression measures that disproportionately affect people of color while he’s running for Governor himself. His opponent, Stacey Abrams, is a black woman who has worked tirelessly on increasing voter access in Georgia, specifically for people of color.
Kemp is being sued for holding up over 53,000 voter registrations due to Georgia’s “exact match” law, which requires voter ID to perfectly match registration down to the letter (for example, if the address on your ID is abbreviated to Ridge Rd. but your registration reads Ridge Road, that’s enough to keep you from voting). This is the second time Kemp has been sued for the “exact match” law; in that 2016 suit he settled, amended the law, and passed it again. Over seventy percent of the 50,000 plus voters affected are Black, Latino, or Asian. Another recent investigation into a completely unrelated process found that Kemp has potentially violated the law by purging 340,000 people for a wrong address in Georgia when those voters have not moved.
In a case unrelated to Kemp, a bus from the group Black Voters Matter was told they could not bring elderly black seniors to the polls in Georgia because the nursing home where the bus was picking them up was a county-run facility and could not support political actions. This is just in one state.
Similarly, one of Brett Kavanaugh’s first votes on the Supreme Court was in a 5–4 decision to let a North Dakota law stand that requires voters to have a street address on their ID to vote. This law specifically targets indigenous people in the state, who live in rural areas, on reservations, or are homeless and disportionately less likely to have a street address, commonly using a P.O. Box for mail instead. This law was passed in 2012, after Democrat Heidi Heitkamp — who was considered one of the swing votes on Kavanaugh’s nomination and who voted against his nomination despite political pressure in her state — won an improbable Senate seat thanks in part to Native American turnout.
These are just three of many voter suppression tactics that have spread through states with conservative majorities since the 2013 decision by the Supreme Court to strike down the enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act, essentially rendering it toothless in addressing these issues. This year, the bipartisan United States Commission on Civil Rights released a report showing that voting access has declined sharply for minority groups.
Two of the last three presidents — 40 percent of the presidents in my lifetime — were elected by a minority of the popular vote. Our Congressional majority was elected by a minority of the popular vote. Four of the nine current Supreme Court justices on the court for a lifetime tenure were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote in at least one election.
Voting Is Harm Reduction
We need to think about voting as “vote and ___.” Our conversation should never be just about voting, voter turnout, or documenting each tenth of a percent change in the horserace for seats, even though that’s all anyone seems to be talking about. What happens after those votes, and what’s the opportunity cost of focusing so much money and time on who we vote for, instead of what those people do after we vote?
For middle class liberals especially, voting and action in service of voting (canvassing, volunteering, phone banking, etc.) are likely the only direct action and labor they have done for change in the United States. Imagine if that time, labor, and hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on applying pressure on those who win that vote to act in a way that changes systems instead of on joining those systems?
We need to think about voting, but more importantly, we need to think about how we can push for systems-level change when our representatives on both sides of the aisle are mostly white, mostly male, mostly rich politicians who are risk-averse and have fundamentally bought-in to the validity and fairness of the systems that gave them power.
Instead of condescendingly telling marginalized people to “just vote” in response to their pain and anger at being defeated by an insurmountable system, consider your audience. Understand that you are talking to people who have been systematically oppressed, beaten down and driven out of what little power, influence, and public platforms they have by white supremacy, sexism, state violence, incarceration, and harassment online and off. You are talking to people who are the target of public calls for violence that somehow don’t seem to qualify as a “credible threat” under the 1st Amendment, which was decided by nine men over 50 years ago.
When all you can do in the face of my anger and pain is tell me to “vote” in November, you miss the point so greatly that it’s hard to put that anger into words. But I’ll try:
Voting is not a magical solution for oppression.
Voting is a tool for possible harm reduction, but only that. Our country will not be changed by voting, especially when the only people who can participate in the halls of politics must do so under a racist, sexist, capitalist system that requires massive sums of money to participate at all.
I am exhausted by our political and social environment in the U.S. Nationally, locally, and in my daily life, I am affected by violence and oppression set in motion by forces I can never address, never hold accountable, and never control.
My body, my love, my gender, my work, and my survival are all in opposition to forces that would rather have me die, and no politician, Democrat or Republican, is going to change that while their power, wealth, and re-election relies on this system being upheld.
Watching the slow drip of news as our country spirals further and further into a police state supporting the lives of white Christian men at the cost of everyone else feels like it is quite literally distorting and crumbling my brain.
I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t work. I can’t stop feeling like we need to do SOMETHING, and nothing seems to be enough to stop this avalanche of consequences.
A corporation’s rights to free speech matter so much that it was made sacred by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United v. FEC ruling in 2010, but access to voting rights and the political process for real human beings are somehow not qualified as a free speech issue.
Voting is important work. If you are working on voting rights and access, what you do matters. However, I also need you to understand that the reasons people can’t or don’t vote are largely linked to their oppression. Until we address that underlying bigotry, voting will continue to be restricted and manipulated to oppress people who are already marginalized.
Until the Democratic Party stops trying to win back white voters who have continued to flee from the party since 1964, we will forever be stuck in this bizarre limbo where the needs, careers, incomes, and grievances of white men are centered by both parties. We will become increasingly unable to address this disparity as fewer marginalized people are able to vote due to escalating disenfranchisement, felony status, inability to access polls due to disability, poverty, and yes, general apathy over launching more white representatives into power who continuously stab marginalized communities in the back for their own reelection and fundraising goals.
Until individual candidates in the Democratic Party care more about justice and enforcing equal access than they do about reelection and maintaining power, we will continue on this same merry-go-round of performative allyship in public and selling out to corporate interests and right-wing power in private.
Until the Democratic Party actually coalesces itself around labor organizing, people of color, disabled people, queer people, and incarcerated people, this country will never be a democracy.
Until every person is able to vote easily and reliably, either by mail or in person for a reasonable period of time before the election with a concrete paper trail, this country is not a democracy.
I’m worried we have been tricked into seeing voting itself as a form of resistance or protest, and potentially the only physically safe form of protest remaining, especially as the Trump Administration wants to crack down on other forms of organized protest it views as disruptive to the state or its public image.
My fear is not that people will stop voting. My fear is that voting will slowly become the only safe way we can change things, while it continues to be restricted in a more unconstitutional way every election. I’m worried that eventually our votes really will be meaningless, and by then, we will be too powerless to address oppression by any other means.
We have options now beyond voting and we must act soon. Recent work by #blacklivesmatter, #not1more, the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, the trans people interrupting Philly Pride, antifa groups working to deplatform fascists, the Occupy movement, and many more groups across the country have revitalized long-standing forms of social activism and disruption of the status quo. We should see their action as a reasonable response to a system invested in their oppression and hold gratitude for their bravery, not anger at their disruption.
In addition to civil disobedience, marginalized people are already working together and building alternative systems of mutual support every day just to survive in a system this broken. We are crowdfunding for medical care, cooking meals for disabled friends, driving each other to run essential errands, loving each other deeply through our pain, and providing everyday services for each other that keep us alive to fight another day — together. Democrats don’t need corporate-funded think tanks to find policy solutions to these problems, they need to look to the community leaders who are already caring for the groups these systems have left behind and ask how we can scale that work up.
We must show up when marginalized communities need our help — and not two years, three years, or 10 years later, when that burning rage suddenly becomes an electoral problem for Democrats in the midterms.
Democrats will not save us. Mueller will not save us. A “blue wave” will not save us. We must save each other, and ourselves, to survive.
Voter suppression and turnout
Erosion of democratic norms