OPINION: ‘If your vote didn’t count, powerful institutions would not make voting this difficult’

People wait in line for early voting on Friday, October 30, 2020, at the Cobb County Tax Commissioner Office. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
People wait in line for early voting on Friday, October 30, 2020, at the Cobb County Tax Commissioner Office. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Spelman College student urges peers to create a nation that reflects their values.

In a guest column on the eve of the 2020 presidential election, Spelman College student Deja Mason urges peers disillusioned with the voting system to think about what is at stake and make their voices heard.

A junior at Spelman, the 20-year-old Mason is majoring in English with a minor in comparative women’s studies. She is from Atlanta and is interested in nonprofit work in the Atlanta area. (You can hear more from her on this video.)

By Deja Mason

As a young Black woman, I can safely tell you that the phrase “your ancestors fought for your voting rights” is no longer motivational.

This phrase seems like a condescending way to police young people’s civic engagement, forcing us to be pragmatic about the decisions placed before us. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that our socio-political status should motivate young Black people to vote.

But what happens when you try to cast your ballot in the middle of a pandemic as the nation continues to deal with a racial divide and the West Coast is on fire?

While I understand that being civically engaged is important during these times, there are moments in which I ask myself if my vote really matters. Operating inside the institution that has historically suppressed the Black vote sometimes seems counterproductive.

Although the concept of voting seems daunting as a young Black person, now is the most important time to make our voices heard through participating in this election. During these trying times, it is crucial to see how young Black people became disillusioned by the voting process, and why we should continue to fight voter suppression.

Black people have always struggled for their suffrage: their right to vote as American citizens. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, gave the formerly enslaved the right to vote, but Southern states immediately retaliated to make voting almost impossible for newly freed Black people.

My ancestors were deprived of their voting rights for many years, mainly through poll taxes and literacy tests. There was also a layer of preventative measures that white supremacists in the South took, such as forming groups like the Ku Klux Klan to violently intimidate Black people into not voting.

Spelman College student Deja Mason
Spelman College student Deja Mason

All of these measures worked. By 1890, Black voter participation decreased by 90%. These tactics targeted Black people in a way that kept them out of the conversation, setting the real progression and representation of this country back at least a couple of decades. During this election cycle, I have come to terms with the fact that our disenfranchisement has simply taken a different form. Black people, specifically poor Black people, still get taken advantage of at the polls.

In 2013, in the Shelby v. Holder court case, the highest court in the land dismantled many of the protections built into the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is the law that, much more than any other, gave Black people the ability to vote. The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision recognized that states, specifically those with a history of racial injustice, do not need approval from the U.S. Department of Justice to change fundamental rules of the election.

In 2018, my home state of Georgia prevented 53,000 residents from completing the registration process; 70% of them were Black. This is problematic because 32% of Georgia’s population is Black, which shows how we are disproportionately affected by Shelby v. Holder.

I did not know any of this information during the 2018 midterm elections -- the first year I was eligible to vote -- but I wish I did because I think I would be even more eager to cast my ballot. Our ancestors put their lives on the line for these freedoms, but their work clearly isn’t done.

It is up to us to hold elected officials accountable for their actions and vote for who we truly believe in. It is easy to be disappointed by a year that has taken so much from all of us, but looking to the future and the possibilities it holds gives me some hope.

If we use the anger, frustration and confusion that has come from the past couple of months and turn it into something productive -- voting, protesting, calling elected officials -- we can ignite change in these systems that intend to make voting more difficult for people like us.

Although cliché, there is truth to the common message, “if your vote didn’t count, powerful institutions would not make voting this difficult.”

Young people have historically low voter turnout rates, but we make up 40% of the electorate. Considering that we will inevitably inherit this nation, it is only right that we participate in it in order for it to improve. As young people, we need to take a step back and question whether or not we are living in a society that reflects our values and recognize that we are the generation that will change it. The president is not the only race that is on the ballot.

In Georgia alone, young people will decide the fate of the future by voting for the two U.S. Senate seats and several seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. That is just on the federal level. There are several other positions on the state and local level that we have the power to choose. While this year has been the bleakest that I have seen, I know we have the ability to use this year as a lesson.

Through casting our vote, we have the ability to move forward and create a nation that reflects our values.

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