by Rev. Earle J. Fisher
Special to The New Tri-State Defender
“Our ancestors died for our right to vote,” was once a persuasive appeal to get apathetic citizens involved in the electoral process. Those days are far gone.
To engage potential voters in the 21st century, especially those under the age of 50, requires a nuanced and empowering approach.
Many assume the reason those 49 and under don’t vote in as high volume as those 50 and over is due to younger adults’ disinterest or distrust in the political system. This is true to a degree. Pew Research polls suggest one in every five Millennials have a deep distrust in government. But what about the other 80 percent? And just because people don’t trust a system does not mean they automatically disconnect from it.
Black and brown people in America (and Memphis/Shelby County) have been holding our noses and diving into the mirage of Democracy for, at least, the past few decades – when our legal voting rights were affirmed.
What generations that followed the Baby Boomers have encountered is a political system that exploits their gifts, ideas and skills but doesn’t affirm their humanity and unalienable rights.
This is part and parcel of why turnout has been so low among those who are 18-45. But, if someone was to develop an infrastructure of engagement for this age group in the same ways some have for those 55 and older, we could really see the rising tide of political progression, led by the current and coming generations. #UPTheVote901 is trying to respond to this need.
Over the past several months, I’ve had numerous conversations with young adults who when asked about voting responded with some variation of “I’m not into politics” or “my vote doesn’t matter.” However, through authentic dialogue and thoughtful responses I’ve unearthed a deep political insecurity stemming from a lack of righteous information that has resulted in a feeble fatalism.
I have developed a few responses for consideration if what we intend to do is provide a platform for more power to more people through political empowerment.
Hear them out. The apathy is both real and warranted. We must accept the fact that both political parties have done more harm than good to black and brown communities overall. And, too many elected officials have only sought to engage community members when it’s time to lobby for votes. The least we can do is listen attentively as those who have been wronged air their grievances to us.
Explain the “Jelly Bean” Rule. In years past, a popular form of “legalized” voter suppression was poll taxes and a popular testing method that included making people of color count the number of jelly beans in a jar. The poll worker’s discretion allowed them to deny the voter access to the ballot box because they “got it wrong.” These manipulative measures of suppression highlight the white power structure’s anxiety around voter empowerment.
Whenever the white power structure works this hard to exclude us from something we should fight harder to embrace whatever they’re trying to exclude us from. It was illegal for enslaved people to read because enslavers knew education increased the potential of emancipation. Resistance to having people of color vote en masse is an indication that our vote is powerful.
Express to them the 25 percent (Minority) Rule. Money matters. And politics, voting, and elections pivot on where money goes and who gets it. All of us pay taxes – directly or indirectly. We buy gas, groceries and clothing. All of these are taxed. These dollars go into a pool of resources that politicians divvy up and distribute based upon their representative perspectives and interests.
When less than 25 percent of registered voters participate in the average local election, we are surrendering economic power to a small percentage of the community. We are granting elected officials the opportunity to piecemeal our money and less than one-fourth of the people decide for the masses where our money goes. When we have more people involved in the electoral process we end up with more resources being distributed more equitably because more people obtain political power.
The political process can be depressing. It is not unreasonable for people who are overworked and underpaid to feel helpless in the process of obtaining political power. Nevertheless, righteous information coupled with collective action has always yielded a progressive return on the investment.
It is well past time for us to concentrate more energy, effort and economic resources to the empowerment of our current and next generation. More political power means more resources to the current and following generation. More of the same means…well, more of the same. We deserve better.
(The Rev. Earle J. Fisher is the senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Memphis and the co-founder of the Memphis Grassroots Organizations Coalition. He is also a PhD student in the Communications Department at the University of Memphis and the president of the Greater Whitehaven Economic Redevelopment Corporation.)