Just hear me out.
“Voting feels inadequate in our darkest moments. I recognize that.
When you’re watching a man’s death on a video loop, hearing him say “I can’t breathe.” When those words echo what another man said in his last moments, his life also taken by the police. When a woman who saved lives is shot dead in her home in a botched police raid. When a black man is murdered for jogging, his killers left free to celebrate. When you know there is a list of deaths so long that most people can’t keep all the names in their head.
To say that the answer is to go cast a ballot feels not just inadequate, but also disrespectful. “Go vote” sounds like a slogan, not a solution. Because millions of us have voted. And too many still die. The moment requires many things of each one of us. What I am focused on is the work of showing people, in concrete ways, what voting gets us. And being honest about how much work voting requires.
Across America, would-be voters continue to turn away or opt out, discouraged by the permanence of inequality, the persistence of voter suppression. Their fear is again and again made real by stories of neighbors denied provisional ballots in Georgia and lines that wind around city blocks in Milwaukee because polling locations are shut down and alternatives never arrive. By undermining confidence in the political system, modern-day suppression has swapped rabid dogs and cops with billy clubs for restrictive voter ID laws and tangled rules for participation. And those who are most vulnerable to suppression become the most susceptible to passing on that reluctance to others.
Now, in the ninth day of protests all across this country and in a week where, in our nation’s capital, thousands of people demonstrated in front of the White House while elsewhere in the city hundreds of people waited in lines to cast their ballot, we must talk about systemic inequalities and particulars.
Which systems are broken? How do we fix them and what does fixing them look like at the federal, state and local levels? We’ve got to be that granular because that’s how people learn. “Dismantle qualified immunity,” “increase law enforcement transparency” and “reform Peace Officer Standards and Training certification methods” don’t make for the catchiest slogans. Not like “just vote” does. But to the extent that we are reductive in how we speak about it — “just go vote” — we shouldn’t be surprised about the rejection of the solution. So then we have to say, “And it doesn’t stop with the vote.”
Voting is a first step in a long and complex process, tedious but vital. You can have a car with all the bells and whistles, but if it doesn’t have wheels, you can’t move forward. So we have to talk about the whole process, and we cannot be so simplistic that we seem too idealistic.
In 2018, I ran for governor of Georgia, with the goal of building a new coalition of voters. Before staff members and volunteers working for my campaign in the field ever mentioned my name, they talked about what the governor does. People don’t necessarily care about politicians, but they do care about their own lives. The canvassers would explain, “The governor is responsible for how much money goes toward education” or “The governor decides whether we expand Medicaid.”
You talk about what the job does, how the job works for people — and how people get to choose who does that work for them when they vote.
In 2020, a poor woman in South Georgia, miles away from a doctor or a hospital, may discover her pregnancy too late to make a choice. If she makes more than $6,000 a year, she is too rich to qualify for Medicaid and too impoverished to afford anything else because the governor refuses to expand the program. If she is black in Georgia, she is three times more likely to die of complications during or after her pregnancy than a white woman in the same position. Her child is more likely to attend underfunded schools, face a return to “tough on crime” policies that target black and brown people, and live in a state with a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. All because her vote didn’t count in 2018.
In our campaign, we increased turnout to record numbers and engaged voters who never wanted to participate before. Athough we didn’t prevail, we forced the closest election in Georgia since 1966. In the course of that 18-month campaign, I met skeptical Americans who neither trusted government nor believed their votes counted. But 1.9 million voters showed up for me on Election Day, the highest number of Democratic votes in Georgia history.
The civil rights icon Representative John Lewis of Georgia often refers to the right to vote as “almost sacred.” As the child of ministers, I understand his hesitation to label a simple, secular act as sacred. Voting is an act of faith. It is profound. In a democracy, it is the ultimate power. Through the vote, the poor can access financial means, the infirm can find health care support, and the burdened and heavy-laden can receive a measure of relief from a social safety net that serves all. And we are willing to go to war to defend the sacred.
I am not calling for violent revolt here. We’ve done that twice in our nation’s history — to claim our freedom from tyranny and when we fought a civil war to recognize (at least a little) the humanity of blacks held in bondage. Yet as millions are stripped of their rights, we live out the policy consequences, from lethal pollution running through poor communities to kindergartners practicing active shooter drills taught with nursery rhymes. I question what remedy remains. The questions that confront me every day are how to defend this sacred right and our democracy, and who will do so.
As it stands now, on one side, we have a Republican Party that believes it has complied with the letter of the law, having twisted the rules to barely reflect its spirit when it comes to purging voter rolls and, of late, rejecting vote-by-mail in a time of global disease. On the other side, the Democrats — the party to which I hold allegiance — talk about full civic engagement but take inconsistent steps to meaningfully expand the electorate and build infrastructure. Embedded in this duality is a fundamental concern: Who is entitled to full citizenship? Based on our national story, and from where we are now, the list is far shorter than it should be.
Right now, we are experiencing an enormous cultural change, spurred by a demographic transition sweeping the nation. According to the Census Bureau, people of color comprise nearly 40 percent of the American population; millennials and Gen Zers are the largest combined age cohort in the country. When added to socially moderate and progressive-leaning whites, this population is a new American majority, and their impact on American life can be felt in nearly every corner. Diversity, which incompletely describes this transformation, has altered how we engage and interact with one another — from the Black Lives Matter movement and marriage equality to Dreamers pressing for action on immigration and women challenging the silence of sexual harassment and assault.
We can also trace a darker, angrier politics out of this evolution. Those who see their relative influence shrinking are using every tool possible to limit access to political power. For those who cling to the days of monochromatic American identity, the sweep of change raises the fundamental fear of not being part of a multicultural America.
As the first black woman ever to win a primary for governor for a major political party in American history, one who ran against one of the worst purveyors of voter suppression and xenophobia since George Wallace, I watched in real time as the conflicts in our evolving nation became fodder for racist commercials, horrific suppression — and the largest turnout of voters of color in Georgia’s history. Despite the final tally of the election, our campaign energized a new American majority in tremendous ways, proving the resilience and possible destiny of our nation.
Every night for more than a week, we have witnessed the anguish and anger of demonstrators, their cries punctured by politicians urging them to vote their power. Both are right. Protest to demand attention to the wrenching pain of systemic injustice. Vote because we deserve leaders who see us, who hear us and who are willing to act on our demands.
Voting will not save us from harm, but silence will surely damn us all.”