I find myself in a reflective and troubling space on the day before our presidential election. My concern is about young people’s apathy in voting, and it’s grown from conversations with college students and young people within my circle of family and friends. My colleagues have also expressed concerns about young people’s attitudes toward the election: They don’t particularly like either candidate and have decided that their votes do not count. As a scholar of African American and U.S. Religious History I am compelled to reflect on the politics of voting throughout history and consequently pose these questions to young people considering staying home Tuesday.
If your vote did not count why would politicians try to suppress it? Why would stakeholders and legislatures nationwide introduce policies to make it difficult for your voice to be heard by the casting of your ballot?
And why would states across the country, from the period of American slavery to present, pass measures to make it harder for U.S. citizens — particularly black people, women, the elderly, students and people with disabilities — to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot? Why, in the early founding of this nation, would only property-owning, white men be allowed to vote?
If your vote did not count, why in 1867 would the radical Republicans in Congress have to deploy federal troops throughout the South to grant formerly enslaved women, men and children equal protection under the law — laws which excluded free and newly freed black men the right the vote?
If your vote did not count, why in 1922, did members of the Ku Klux Klan fly over Oklahoma City and drop cards into black neighborhoods threatening residents with violence if they headed to the polls? And why in the new millennium are white nationalist members offering “liquor and weed” to blacks in Philly on Election Day to entice them to stay home and not go vote?
If your vote did not count, why would Medgar Evers and other black military men, after fighting for the United States in Germany and France during World War II, head to the polls in Mississippi only to be met by violent, white mobs?
If your vote did not count, why in 1962 would Fannie Lou Hamer lose her job after leading a group of 17 people to the polls? Why did white men with raised rifles stop them from registering to vote? Why in 1963, after Hamer was arrested for her efforts, was she beaten within an inch of her life in her jail cell by white policemen in a Winona, Miss.? Why was Fannie Hamer the perceived threat — and not the men with guns?
If your vote did not count, why would elderly black people stand in long voting lines only to be stopped by a literacy test? And no easy test — a timed test distributed to blacks in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi during the 1950s and ’60s. The test distributed throughout various Louisiana parishes included about 25 to 50 questions too difficult for the average person to answer, especially within a 10-minute time limit.
So, why would our nation’s elders stand in line for hours knowing the possibility of denial was stronger than the possibility of voting? Why would they stand in line knowing they could likely neither complete the exam in time nor achieve a perfect score? That is like preparing all semester for a midterm and studying through the night all the while knowing the teacher plans to give you an F. Would you do that if you thought the grade wouldn’t count or only if you felt there was even some small chance it would?
If your vote did not count, why would young college students (or any human being) subject themselves to water hoses, beatings, the risk of being hanged and domestic terrorism throughout the United States to achieve a right that meant nothing?
If your vote did not count, why would there be a need for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, extending underrepresented groups the right to vote, and why would that same Voting Rights Act be in jeopardy in 2013? Why specifically is that act revisited time and time again in state courts and the nation’s capital? Why isn’t this act a permanent victory for you and those historically faced with threats to their right to vote?
If your vote did not count, then what’s going on in North Carolina? Why did the NAACP sue the state, and why are the Rev. William Barber II and other North Carolina leaders fighting for voters’ rights in the courts? Why did counties in North Carolina — 90 days before the election — remove voters from the rolls, with the majority of those registered voters being black, female, elderly, students and people with disabilities? Why was U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs “horrified” by the large number of names removed from the voting rolls?
If your vote did not count, why in 2016 did 14 states — Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin — have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election? Why are some states limiting voting hours and voter access?
If your vote did not count, why did Grace Bell Hardison, a 100-year-old bed-ridden woman, write a letter to President Obama saying, “I can’t vote”? Just weeks before early voting, Hardison received a notice from the North Carolina voter registration board that she would be removed from the voting roll “if she did not appear at a county board election meeting or return a notarized form” — something she couldn’t physically do. Why would voting matter so much to someone with so much else to be concerned about if it meant nothing?
If your vote did not count, why would Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump tell his supporters to “go to your place and vote, and then go pick some other place…sit there with your friends and make sure it’s on the up-and-up?” Why would Trump direct his followers to “watch polls” in predominately black and Hispanic urban areas?
What is he so afraid of? Your vote.
More than ever, we need you young people to go to the polls and cast votes. After Nov. 8 there are no do-overs. If we don’t want our future to look like our past, we need to use the rights we’ve earned through so many marches, protests and lost lives. Your vote, our votes, do count. Let’s use them.