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Voting and Protesting Go Hand-in-Hand — and There Are Barriers to Both

Americans have the right to make themselves heard at the ballot box and on the streets.

June 12, 2020
voting protest
Mario Tama/Getty

In recent weeks, we’ve seen protest­ers take to the streets around the coun­try to decry police brutal­ity. Like so much in our coun­try, this injustice is born dispro­por­tion­ately by communit­ies of color. And in far too many places, protests have been met with even more police viol­ence.

Many, includ­ing Pres­id­ent Obama, have encour­aged protest­ers to also vote in order to “bring about real change.” Indeed, every­one should vote, but it is import­ant to recog­nize that struc­tural barri­ers to the ballot box have under­mined this option for many of the most margin­al­ized Amer­ic­ans. And in fact, it’s for that very reason that some people likely feel compelled to march — they feel that it’s the only way that their voices can be truly heard.

Voter suppres­sion falls heav­ily on communit­ies already burdened by poli­cing, arrests, and felony convic­tions. For example, in all but two states, citizens who are convicted of felon­ies are legally prohib­ited from voting for at least some period. Given the racially concen­trated nature of poli­cing and incar­cer­a­tion, this means that some communit­ies see their polit­ical power seri­ously reduced relat­ive to others. In New York State, for instance, just 14.3 percent of the citizen voting-age popu­la­tion is Black, but Black resid­ents make up 49.5 percent of those in state pris­ons and are there­fore disen­fran­chised.

Compound­ing the prob­lem, as the Bren­nan Center shows in a recently published study, felony disen­fran­chise­ment has major “spillover effects.” In other words, eligible voters who live in neigh­bor­hoods where felony disen­fran­chise­ment is rampant turn out to vote at lower rates. However, work by polit­ical scient­ists also shows that citizens whose loved ones are caught up in the crim­inal justice system are more likely to take other polit­ical actions — includ­ing protest­ing in the streets. For citizens who are disen­fran­chised them­selves or whose loved ones are not allowed to vote, protest­ing is a way to make their voices heard.

Of course, felony disen­fran­chise­ment is not the only struc­tural barrier to voting for low-income and minor­ity communit­ies. As our work on voter purges has shown, purge rates have increased dramat­ic­ally in parts of the coun­try with a history of racial discrim­in­a­tion. If voters show up to vote only to find that they are off the rolls, they often cannot make their voices heard — and are perhaps less likely to trust the demo­cratic process going forward.

Covid-19 is making the situ­ation even worse and is fall­ing dispro­por­tion­ately on Black communit­ies. As the nation prepares for the Novem­ber elec­tion, many voters will request and cast their ballots by mail. While vote by mail is an import­ant option during a pandemic, research shows that mail ballots cast by racial minor­it­ies are rejec­ted at higher rates — yet another way in which people of color’s voices might be silenced this year.

Demo­cracy means more than voting on Elec­tion Day. It means governance by the people. Protest and other forms of expres­sion are means for the people to be heard. This is doubly true when we consider the multi­tude of suppress­ive tactics used against the voting rights of voters of color.

Our polit­ical system depends on every voice being heard. In the voting booth, voting can accom­plish much change, but not every­one can vote. Addi­tion­ally, not every­one will want to vote when so many citizens feel that elec­ted offi­cials are making it harder to do so. Demo­cracy func­tions best when we are all included. When we are not, it should not surprise anyone that Amer­ic­ans are making their voices heard through protests.