Voting is the most basic and important right an individual has in a democracy. As voters, we elect people to represent our communities and if a majority of voters do not approve of the performance of the people they elect, they get to vote them out.
Sadly in the United States, democracy is flawed. It intentionally leaves out many people from the ballot box, especially people of color. The state of Florida is one of the country’s biggest culprits when it comes to systemic voter suppression, significantly disenfranchising its black and brown citizens.
Consider this, about 55% of Floridians are white, yet they make up about 74% of the electorate. In comparison, 25% of the population is Hispanic and 17% Black, yet they only make up 9% and 12% of the electorate respectively.
All of those groups turn out to vote at similar rates, which suggests that the hunger for civic engagement exists within all those communities, but unfortunately something is actively preventing huge swaths of people from participating in the process.
For example, across the country, nearly 6 million American citizens who served felony convictions cannot vote because of Jim Crow-style racist laws. Out of the three states that impose lifetime felony disenfranchisement, Florida is the biggest culprit, with more than 1.5 million people and a quarter of its black citizens unable to cast a ballot.
This is not the only form of voter suppression happening in Florida. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in 2017, which devastated low income communities here, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) handed out emergency food stamps to poor residents on the same day in which municipal elections were taking place. This ensured that the thousands of people forced to stand for hours in long lines under the sun for such basic resources as food would not be making it to the polls on Election Day.
It is obvious that the long voting lines, reduced early voting hours, massive voter purges, strict voter registration restrictions, and other hurdles that Floridians face every electoral cycle are engineered to drive down turnout and help politicians whose hold on power is dependent on fewer people voting.
In an effort to fight back against these tactics and radically expand the electorate to win our communities the political power they deserve, a coalition made up of the Center for Community Change Action, the Service Employees International Union, Planned Parenthood Votes and Color of Change PAC are partnering to form the “Win Justice” program. This new voting outreach initiative seeks to turn out low propensity black and brown voters in the states of Florida, Michigan and Nevada.
This campaign, which will ultimately reach 2.5 million voters before the November midterm elections, will be different because the aim is to build long-term relationships with the community members it reaches, rather than the usual transactional electoral efforts that seek to turn out voters with no political education component or long-term power building vision.
These efforts to expand the electorate are important to me because I know what it’s like to be disenfranchised. I lived in this country as an undocumented immigrant alongside my parents for more than a decade, hoping that Congress would pass some form of immigration reform that could help us live our lives in the open. Unfortunately, lawmakers seemed unable and unwilling to provide a solution, which meant my family and I and millions of others had to wait.
I married in 2011 and was able to gain residency. It was a life changer. I obtained a work permit and a Social Security card and with that, I was able to get a job and a driver’s license, apply for in-state tuition and financial aid, and move my life forward.
In 2016, I finally became a citizen and with that new status I was able to do something I’d never been able to do: Vote for the first time. I also was able to apply for residency for my parents. And while I am happy for us, I reflect on the physical attacks and public disparagement that I’ve seen immigrants face. The current level of vitriol directed towards my community has reached levels that I have not seen before. It has to stop.
That’s why I feel the urgency of the Win Justice campaign.
Electoral campaigns cannot continue to expect that working people, who already face significant hurdles to reach the ballot box, will form habitual voting habits if they keep turning out to vote without seeing improvement in their daily lives from doing so. By working and building the infrastructure of community organizations which have been organizing to move forward campaigns at the local and state level, the Win Justice coalition will fight to counteract the forces that seek to suppress the vote of people of color, while empowering them to take action beyond elections to win the policy fights that will actually make a difference and improve the lives of working class families.