As we reimagine—and fight for—the anti-racist, democratic, equitable world we want to see, it’s imperative that we learn from the leaders who’ve been doing this work all along. In ELLE.com’s new series Just Three Things, we’ll be interviewing activists about the three things they wish more people knew about their area of expertise. Here, Stacey Abrams, the founder of national voting rights organization Fair Fight, goes first.
1. Voting rights and the census are connected.
The census will not only tell us who we are, it helps determine who we get to vote for, and having the right to vote is made meaningful by who you get to choose. The way voting districts are determined, from the school board all the way to Congress, depends on who’s counted in the census. Think about it as a room. Voting districts are rooms that get drawn for you. You can be put in a room with people who, like you, are trying to figure out how they’re going to make ends meet, who want to see action on certain issues. Let’s say, in that room, they want reproductive choice, they want environmental action, and they want there to be criminal justice reform. Or they can put you in a room with people who think you should just lock people up and throw away key, who believe that abortion rights are absolutely wrong, and climate change is a conspiracy. Which room do you want to go into? The way they decide your room is the census. If only the people who want room number two fill out the census, then they’re going to assume you agree, and they’re going to put you in room number two. The only way we get our own rooms is if we speak up.
2. Voting is not a magical solution.
I wish those who hold out voting as the solution were more honest about what it actually does. Voting isn’t an event. It is not a single moment that changes the world or changes our lives. It is a process, and like any process, if you only do parts of it, it doesn’t work. That means we have to vote over and over and over again to shape the choices we want and to shape the policies we need.
This is like taking medicine. It’s like a regimen. You’ve got to keep doing it. We can’t think that we’re going to pick a savior. We can’t believe we’re going to have a vote that’s going to solve every problem. We’ve got to tackle this like we’re trying to treat a disease with chemotherapy. That means we’ve got to keep taking it, and it’s going to be painful. Sometimes it’s going to be worse than the disease itself. But if we treat voting as a process, rather than an event, we will start to see the changes we really need to see.
3. Everything we want is derived from our right to vote.
Voting is true power. It is how everything else we want either becomes real or is ignored. In a democracy, the power of citizens to speak aloud what they need is the most fundamental power we have. What pains me so often is that we dismiss our power because we don’t see it in evidence, like the beginning of a superhero movie before they realize how to use their power. I need us to get to the second act where we figured it out and we’re using it because we are in this moment of change, where we have a common vision for what needs to be. Now we just have to believe that voting is our power to get it done.
And one more thing: Voter suppression is designed to look like common sense.
You hear people say, “Of course we need voter ID. You need an ID to get beer.” Well, that’s not the problem. We’ve always had voter identification law. What’s different is the level of restrictiveness on the type of ID you have to have. In 2018, if you were Native American living in North Dakota, they required that you have a residential address even though many reservations don’t use them, so it was an impossible standard to meet. In Texas, it’s being told that you have to show your ID, but you can’t use your student ID, but you can use your gun license. Or yes, you can vote by mail, but you have to have a witness—during quarantine. I wish people understood that it’s not the blatant things we are used to seeing. It’s much more subtle, and it affects so many more people, but they don’t know it’s affecting them because it just looks like rules. As Americans, we get used to bureaucracy, we get used to rules, and we don’t always investigate if some of these rules make any sense. It is so seductive because it looks like logic, until you investigate a little deeper.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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