Voting for More than a President

The racialized nature of this presidential election strengthened African Americans’ resolve to vote. But without serious reforms to our voting system, will voters stand in the same long lines to vote in the next election?

November 8, 2012

On Tuesday, I saw how the racialized nature of this presidential election had an unintended consequence of strengthening African-Americans’ resolve to vote.

I voted in a polling site in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a historically African-American neighborhood. It took me three hours to vote, largely because poll workers were not trained properly. Machines broke, poll workers misdirected voters, and we were shuffled from one line to another without explanation. A fistfight even broke out, sparked by conflicting directions from poll workers.

However, instead of being discouraged by long lines and confusion, voters responded by increasing their resolve to cast their ballots. Each time a delay was announced or a poll worker yelled at someone, a voter would say some version of, “They aren’t gonna stop me from voting today,” or, “They aren’t gonna stop us from electing him.” Perhaps my sampling was skewed because nearly every voter at the site was also black or brown.

Tired voters at my site engaged in casual conversation about both real and imagined conspiracies to disenfranchise “us” in order to defeat “him.” Topics ranged from the very real voter suppression battles that the Brennan Center has been fighting to untrue rumors that voting machines were programmed to void a straight Democratic Party ballot. Each conversation always ended with “but not today,” or, “I’m not going anywhere.”  

For many Americans of color — and particularly African-Americans — this election was about more than just electing a President who shared our values. It was about voting for a person who looked like us – the first black President. Someone with whom they could identify. This is why my neighbors stayed in those long lines. This is why black grandmothers waited in their walkers and young black men remained in line long after their lunch hours ended. With 93% of the African-American vote, Obama’s presidency and reelection has rightfully enraptured and reinvigorated black America. There was, literally, dancing in the streets.

Fifty-one percent of Americans voted for Obama. Over half the American electorate voted for ideals of inclusion, expansion of democracy, and equality. They also voted for a black man. Again. For many African-Americans, this election was about race and history in a way that can never be repeated. There will never be another first black President.

What does that mean for 2016, or even the mid-term elections? And what happens in the next election, if we don’t “fix this, by the way”? “We” won’t have a “him” to rally around again. Will black voters still stay in those long lines? If our voting system remains mired in confusion and anarchy, many of those Bed-Stuy voters may just return to work or their homes without casting a ballot.

Let’s hope Obama takes his promise to fix our voting system seriously. Otherwise, next election, who goes to the White House may be decided by the would-be voters who give up, and go home.