I voted for the first time in 2000 as a freshman at Ohio State University. In the days that followed, I felt torn. I was proud to cast my first ballot, but I also watched the news about Florida’s recount descending into farce. Democracy had to be fairer than this, I thought.
Since then, voting only got harder. In 2004, I waited in line for three hours in the rain. Other Ohio voters, particularly in black communities, experienced similar challenges. There were irregularities like disqualification of provisional ballots, poor distribution of voting machines, and, as I experienced, long lines. Despite my disbelief and frustration, I was determined to vote because I wanted my voice to be heard.
None of the problems I first experienced as a young voter have been fixed. Instead, they have been made worse through new barriers to voting — and it has become clear that voting rights will be a defining political struggle of my generation.
Five years ago the Supreme Court ended a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. For decades, this provision protected voters in states with nefarious histories of voting discrimination. Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, tried to make the case that our country had changed so much since the bad old days when eligible voters were systematically denied access to the ballot.
But Chief Justice Roberts was wrong. As a black millennial, I have experienced the lasting legacy of Jim Crow, and seen firsthand why we still need the Voting Rights Act.
Today’s barriers to voting exist against the backdrop of those in the highest offices tearing families apart, endorsing white supremacy, attempting to erase transgender people, and packing the federal courts with right-wing, extremist judges. They ban travelers from Muslim majority countries and stoke fears among too many people in America, leading to profiling, harassment, and even murder.
Without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, states are furiously working to erode voting rights for communities of color, young people, people with disabilities, Native Americans, low-income people, those with limited English proficiency, and seniors. We have seen surprise poll closures in predominantly black and brown communities, limits to early voting and same-day registration, changes designed to disenfranchise Native American voters, the purging of voter rolls, and a host of other restrictive laws at state and local levels. This is not a mistake. In the face of such rollbacks, people must remember that our right to vote is intrinsically tied to every civil and human rights issue we’re confronting today.
In America, to use our voice — and to tell our story — is to exercise power. There is nothing more fundamental to the fabric of our democracy than voting. So, what can we do to speak up and demand change?
To begin with, vote. If you voted early or sent in your absentee ballot, that’s a great start — but make sure your friends and family are voting too. As the Trump administration and the president’s allies barrel forth with their destructive agenda, it is all the more important that Americans vote for candidates with integrity who will fight for civil and human rights, at every level of government.
This election, some states even have ballot initiatives that are fighting to break down barriers to voting head-on. In Florida, voters could restore the right to vote to an estimated 1.4 million formerly incarcerated people. The state’s policy of permanently barring the right to vote dates back to the 1800s, and because of grievous racial disparities in the criminal justice system, more than one in five black adults in Florida are unable to vote.
On the ballot in Michigan is Proposal 3, which would usher in sweeping reform of the state’s election system — which has not been overhauled since 1975. If passed, Michigan would join at least 17 other states in offering same-day voter registration. The proposal, known as Promote the Vote, would also include automatic voter registration, straight ticket voting, and no-excuse absentee voting. Same-day registration is also on the ballot in Maryland and automatic voter registration is up for a vote in Nevada.
These initiatives made it onto state ballots because of the groundswell of people who organized across America for fair and transparent elections. Democracy only works when we all can and do participate. Every one of us has a powerful voice in building an America that honors the humanity and dignity of all people. Our democracy is worn, but not beyond repair.
Today, we vote our values. Tomorrow, we live them — and realize our vision of an America that celebrates the voices, the votes, and the power of we, the people.
Ashley Allison is executive vice president of campaigns and programs at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.