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2020: When a deadly virus taught us the importance of voting

As parents, there are many milestones we look forward to in the lives of our children: their first word, the first day of school and high school graduation, to name a few.

As a mother, I was thrilled to see my daughter reach another milestone in 2020. Having  celebrated her 18th birthday this year, she will vote for the first time, just as I did years before her in my home state of Tennessee. Of all the elections to cast her first ballot, there is no other in recent memory that better underscores how the simple act of voting so profoundly affects our lives, the lives of our friends, family, neighbors, and, ultimately, the fate of our communities and country.

This year, a devastating public health crisis brought into stark relief our society’s chronically neglected ills, with particularly painful consequences for people of color.

Economic injustice has long been a deep source of distress in this country, but the pandemic – and the millions of jobs lost as a result of it – have shown just how many of us are struggling to survive. After years of living on the edge, families across the South are facing eviction and financial ruin in a country marred by vast income inequality and a scant social safety net.

We can no longer ignore economic injustice in this country.

Similarly, 2020 has shown us the danger of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. With the United States in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, our overcrowded prisons are an ideal place for the coronavirus to spread – threatening lives both inside prisons and in surrounding communities, particularly the lives of older people. We must reduce this threat by confronting the inextricably linked issues of overincarceration, for-profit prisons and racial inequity in the criminal justice system.

Before the health crisis, the immigrant community in this country had been abused and demonized. Our nation’s inhumane policies have torn children from their parents, systematically prevented those fleeing violence and persecution from seeking asylum, and needlessly locked away people in our nation’s ever-expanding immigrant detention system. As with our prisons, these facilities are a clear and present danger due to the coronavirus.

We cannot let this situation continue.

If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it may be that daily life in America slowed to a point that when the public saw the video of George Floyd suffocating to death under a police officer’s knee, it resonated in a way it may not have otherwise, moving us to demonstrate in historic fashion against racial injustice. But demonstrations are only part of the equation; our elected leaders must be committed to dismantling white supremacy and achieving equity and justice for all.

Finally, there’s the grossly irresponsible handling of the pandemic itself, which continues to ravage our nation and lives. This is why we must elect leaders who are ready and willing to lead. Whether it’s a federal office or a local school board, those in positions of power must have the competence and compassion to confront – and overcome – our greatest challenges.

That’s why it’s so important to vote.

This election year, the Southern Poverty Law Center and its allies have worked tirelessly to not only ensure equitable access to the ballot box, but also to protect voters amid the pandemic. The strategy includes an investment of up to $30 million in grants from the SPLC’s endowment to help nonpartisan, nonprofit voter outreach organizations increase registration and participation among people of color across the South over several election cycles.

The Vote Your Voice initiative – a partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta – seeks to empower communities by aiding them in their fight against voter suppression; support Black- and Brown-led voter mobilization efforts; prototype effective voter engagement strategies; and re-enfranchise formerly incarcerated people.

The health of our democracy – and our nation – depends on our vote. It’s a lesson I’ve instilled in my daughter. And it’s a lesson I hope this extraordinarily painful year has instilled in all of us. Your voice matters – make sure it’s heard on Election Day. 

Photo by AP Images/Gerald Herbert