Voter Suppression Is a Feminist Issue: Lessons for Future Elections

Law at the Margins Associate Editor Morgan Moone. Photos courtesy of Law at the Margins.

Law at the Margins Associate Editor Morgan Moone. Photos courtesy of Law at the Margins.

By Morgan Moone

Special to the Eagle

After the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the hashtag #midterms2018 began trending as organizations called for young women to vote.

Many organizations hosted phone banks and information sessions on how, when and who to vote for. Voting is a political tool that is critical in a functioning democracy and is rightfully recognized as such.

Because of its importance, the lack of inclusion of voting rights in the current women’s movement and the lack of discussion around disenfranchised communities is concerning.

Current movements often forget that not all of members can vote and too often leave disenfranchised folks out of the conversations surrounding organizing and mobilizing voters.

The United States has a long history of excluding black voters from polls. Women’s movements also fail to understand the necessity of ensuring that all folks’ voices are heard, regardless of their ability to participate in elections.

Silenced by Disenfranchisement

Predicating political and social change solely on voting is not only wrong, it’s exclusionary.

It devalues the voices of those who cannot vote and excludes them from mobilization efforts premised on the assumption that all folks in the U.S. can engage in elections. It demonizes those who do not vote without considering the structural systems in place that prevent hundreds of thousands from voting each year.

The Sentencing Project found that 6.1 million Americans cannot vote because of a prior felony conviction, for example.

Systematic and active disenfranchisement of residents of U.S. colonies such as Puerto Rico, Guam, the American Samoa and U.S. Virgin Islands perpetuates centuries-old colonialism in a new form.

Native Americans are subjected to stricter voter ID rules that require street addresses, as opposed to other addresses such as post office boxes. In addition to disenfranchising homeless folks or those in temporary living situations, such rules also exclude those living with other tribal members who “aren’t always aware of their address.”

Exact match laws disenfranchise thousands of individuals, including folks who recently attained U.S. citizenship.

The inclusion of voting rights in the larger feminist movement is critical because it showcases the intersectional identities that are most vulnerable to government silencing. “Modern” feminists must address voter suppression, either direct or indirect, by facing the problem head on and understanding the racist and sexist policies behind the suppression.

“If 51% of our population is women, why isn’t that reflected in political leadership and representation?” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter. “We know we have work to do because the sheer numbers show that women are underrepresented. When people are looking to control our bodies and what we do with our bodies, looking at unequal pay and policies that impact women at a disproportionate rate, voting rights is key and center. If you’re marginalizing women’s voices, you’re marginalizing the power to change and transform sexist and biased policies.”

The power behind voting should not be understated and the fact that so many are denied this right cannot be ignored. It is “our duty to think about the political interests of everyone, of every woman,” including those who are denied the right to vote.

Voting Rights and Ending Disenfranchisement

Black-led organizations are creating electoral strategies that recognize the importance of voting and simultaneously work towards ending disenfranchisement.

Black Voters Matter works to increase voter registration and advocates for policies that expand voting rights and access by recognizing the intersections of race, gender and economic aspects of equity.

Black Lives Matter Cincinnati, which is now called Mass Action for Black Liberation, practices “independent, revolutionary political action,” while simultaneously recognizing the importance of the ballot box.

Stacey Abrams, who ran for Georgia governor in Tuesday’s election, tackled this battle head on.

Brian Kemp, her opponent and the Georgia secretary of state, has systematically disenfranchised voters who threaten his campaign.

In response to such voter suppression, Abrams’s spokesperson Abigail Collazo said that Kemp “is maliciously wielding the power of his office to suppress the vote for political gain and silence the voices of thousands of eligible voters — the majority of them people of color.”

After reaching out to Abrams, her campaign sent Law@theMargins a clip of Abrams’ appearance on The View. In that appearance, Abrams said Kemp has been an “architect of voter suppression,” and noted that his actions of purging, stopping and arresting voters of color have injected racial bias into the electoral system, disenfranchising those with a Constitutional right to vote.

The Abrams campaign realized that this disenfranchisement disproportionately affects women of color.

Nikema Williams, a state senator and the Georgia state director of Care in Action, told HuffPo that the election necessarily impacts women.

“It’s about reclaiming our power, reclaiming our voice and making sure that our issues are uplifted, because we are living these issues every day as women of color here in the South,” Williams said.

Kemp’s active efforts to purge voters affects women’s access to Medicaid and obstetric care, a living wage, and reintegration programs for folks leaving prison by denying them the ability to vote for a candidate who will fight for their rights. Those efforts also attempt to stifle one of the most powerful communities in electoral politics: black women.

Citizen SHE United Founder and Executive Director Nia Weeks said “the reason dissenters spent so much time and effort preventing the black female community from voting, and continue to create systems that make voting difficult, is because they know how powerful our vote is.”

In 2008 and 2012, black women voted at a higher rate than any other group, the Washington Post reported.

Four years ago, 74 percent of eligible black women went to the polls — and 96 percent voted for President Obama in 2012.

Brown notes that we need radical revolutionary change, which we accomplish by centering those who have been most marginalized.

“Voting rights has always been a gender issue in this country, and when you couple that with race, race has always made women extremely vulnerable in voting spaces,” Brown said.

Thus, if we’re looking for a new system, we must place women and other historically marginalized communities in power.

We can only get there by including voting rights in our larger feminist agenda.

A version of this piece appears on the website and the Community NewsRoom, projects founded by CUNY Law professor Chaumtoli Huq.