This year is a historic election year. With a pandemic disproportionately affecting communities of color and the masses rising up against police brutality toward Black people, Tina Knowles-Lawson and Mothers of the Movement, a group of Black mothers whose children have died while in police custody, joined forces with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR) to urge the passage of the HEROES Act and to fight against voter suppression in Black communities.
The COVID-19 relief bill would provide states with $3.6 billion in federal assistance to conduct the general election in accordance with pandemic safety measures. The legislation, which appropriates $3 trillion in total funding and has already passed in the House of Representatives, would also extend enhanced unemployment benefits, send households second stimulus checks, eliminate certain costs for COVID-19 treatment, and more.
Knowles-Lawson and some of the moms from Mothers of the Movement met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer earlier this month. She called the senator “very receptive” to the mothers’ insistence that he push for the bill’s passage.
“Everything comes down to money,” Knowles-Lawson tells BAZAAR.com. “You just don’t want them to have any excuses in terms of money as to why they couldn’t create a safe environment for people to do their civic duty.”
In partnership with the LCCHR’s campaign And Still I Vote, Knowles-Lawson wrote a letter last month to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Schumer urging for the legislation’s enactment. Her daughters, Beyoncé and Solange, signed the letter along with Mothers of the Movement and Black women in the entertainment industry, including Viola Davis, Whoopi Goldberg, Octavia Spencer, and Jada Pinkett Smith.
“In passing this legislation, you will take an affirmative step toward declaring that Black lives matter,” Knowles-Lawson wrote in the letter. “And you will lead the country–thanks to the creation of a more accountable democracy in which all Americans’ voices are heard–towards a long-sought moment in which no mother need wonder: will my son or daughter not make it home tonight because of the color of their skin?”
Although she’s fighting to preserve the right to vote, Knowles-Lawson understands the frustration that can come with trying to exercise this right. She mentors kids from South Central Los Angeles, many of whom have family members who are incarcerated or have been killed by the police and are now “just hopeless” when it comes to voting for systematic change.
“What I’ve been able to do is just connect the dots for them. To say that, ‘Your family votes the mayor in, who hires the police chief, who exerts the policy. And then the city council people you vote in, the attorney general, the judges that decide your dad’s fate when he went to court—do you want it to be someone that has prosecuted every Black or Brown man that comes through that court system?'” she says. “Educate yourself on people and don’t just give them the vote. You do have power to vote them out if they’re not doing the right thing.”
Maria Hamilton, the mother of Dontre Hamilton, a Black man who was killed by a Milwaukee police officer in 2014, also has experience with getting her voice heard at the ballot box.
“This year’s election is nothing like any election I’ve ever seen,” she tells BAZAAR.com, referring to Wisconsin’s frustrating primary experience, from long lines to few polling locations. Hamilton, who formed Mothers for Justice United after Dontre’s death, says she discovered her own vote was not counted after she sent in her absentee ballot. “It’s just heart-wrenching to know that human beings in this country are dead set on this politics agenda that they’ve been having against people of color and Black people for 401 years. Racism is alive in full force right now.”
You do have power to vote them out if they’re not doing the right thing.
Voters in other states also reported issues with their primary elections. For instance, many of those who requested absentee ballots in order to avoid in-person voting in the middle of a pandemic say they never received them in the mail. Election problems exacerbated by COVID-19 concerns were also compounded by voting obstacles decades in the making.
“COVID-19 is just another barrier to the ballot that voters are facing, and voters of color are the most impacted by the virus and by voter suppression,” says Leigh Chapman, the voting director for the LCCHR.
In the 2013 case of Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court gutted federal preclearance, one of the most significant provisions of the Voting Rights Act that mandated states with a history of voter discrimination seek federal approval before changing their voter laws.
“Since 2013, we’ve seen a wave of voter suppression around the country,” Chapman says. “We’ve seen states institute strict voter ID laws, like Texas and North Carolina. There have been massive closures of polling places around the country, and millions of voters have been purged from the roll.”
Under the CARES Act, the first COVID-19 relief bill that Congress passed, states were provided with $400 million in financial assistance to conduct their primaries. Still, Chapman says, that amount hardly scratched the surface in funds that were needed in order to make voting accessible for everyone during a pandemic. Soon, Senator McConnell is expected to introduce CARES 2, a stimulus bill that appropriates $1 trillion in funding, compared to the HEROES Act’s $3 trillion.
“Four hundred million dollars is definitely far short of the $4 billion that is needed,” she says. “With the pandemic, policies are changing around voting. So we are going to see a huge increase appear in vote by mail.”
Knowles-Lawson adds, “Just even printing up the ballot for all those additional absentee ballots—that takes money.”
COVID-19 is just another barrier to the ballot that voters are facing, and voters of color are the most impacted by the virus and by voter suppression.
As Election Day nears, Hamilton is keeping her eye on the long-term vision. “We need Donald Trump to be voted out of the White House so this country can start to heal and to build,” she says. “Right now, all the other countries in the world are appalled with us and our presidency and the way our Congress is running this country. Talk about the rich getting richer and to hell with the rest of the country.”
Chapman also doesn’t want voters to lose sight of the bigger picture. “We don’t try to sugarcoat it at Leadership Conference. We don’t say that voting is going to change all of our problems in the United States, because it definitely won’t, but it really is the first tool in our toolbox for change,” she says. “If people want to see reform when it comes to policing or criminal justice or education or health care or any other issue that they care about, the first step in that is voting.”
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