I am a Harvard-educated lawyer who leads The Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF)—a national nonpartisan organization almost exclusively focused on voting—but voter suppression almost kept me from voting twice because of one of my other identifiers: I am Black.
Despite working to register others to vote during my first year at Spelman College, I was told that I was not registered when I arrived to vote in the 2000 Presidential Election. It was one of the most painful and defining moments of my life. It is a large reason why I do the work that I do at AGF, where we fight to make young people’s voices and votes a powerful force in democracy.
But, I don’t live in Georgia any more. I live in New Jersey, where this election cycle we are all voting by mail (VBM). When I heard about the automatic VBM decision, it felt good. Nonetheless, I quickly experienced the fatal flaw to VBM that almost disenfranchised me again.
I have spent weeks trying to track down my ballot. After hearing from my colleagues and friends that they have already been able to vote in New Jersey, I have left countless messages with the Clerk’s Office, and have been transferred in circles between the Board of Elections (BOE) and the Mayor’s Office. I noticed that there was incorrect information on the internet about voting in New Jersey, which said that in-person early voting was going to start on October 19th. I finally spoke to someone in the BOE Office who confirmed that in-person voting is only for “people who are handicapped or disabled” and that in-person voters will only be able to vote provisionally. So to clarify, in New Jersey we aren’t allowed to vote by mail, we have to vote by mail.
After weeks of calling, I finally got through to the Clerk’s Office. They told me that I was not registered. I have to admit that moment brought me all the way back to 2000. For just an instant, I felt a sense of terror and dread that I would be locked out of our democracy again, but this time during the election of my lifetime. After taking a breath I snapped back into reality, “ma’am I know I’m properly registered because I received a ballot for the primaries.”
I made a promise to myself in 2000. I committed to never again let anyone stand between me and my right to vote. After a lot of persistence, we were able to find my record using my birthday and discovered that my name was misspelled on the voter registry. I was told that my ballot was already mailed, which—even if true—I never received. If I wanted to request a second ballot I needed to print, fill out, scan, and email back a form. A new ballot would then be mailed. This simply wasn’t an option with two weeks to the election.
I asked if I could pick up my ballot in person, which I was told was possible. It was frustrating that this option was not the first solution that I was offered, but I wasted no time heading downtown to pick it up. It took me another 40 minutes to figure out how to get from the parking lot into the building. There was dangerous construction surrounding the parking lot and no directions on how to get inside. A police officer finally directed me through a back alley marked with a “do not enter” sign.
Sitting there waiting for my ballot after completing yet another form to change my name on the voter registry to the proper spelling, I watched as countless Black and Brown people came and went. They—like me—made the extraordinary effort to vote and many were being turned away. It reminded me of the recent stories that I have heard of Black and Brown Americans in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania who received suspicious mailers spreading misinformation about their IDs; in Georgia, where early voting lines stretched for hours; and in Tennessee where our students have had to drive three hours to get to their polling precinct. Will they be persistent enough to demand to be counted?
Our country has a long history of voter suppression targeting voters of color, dating back to the Jim Crow Era. While we have made many gains over the years, systemic racism continues to keep people who look like me from the ballot while taunting us by saying that we do not care enough to vote. That is why in addition to progressive options such as VBM, all voters must have access to multiple voting options. States must also proactively offer resources to easily cure issues with registrations and ballots. The onus should not be on the voters. This is something that The Andrew Goodman Foundation is currently working on in states such as Wisconsin and North Carolina.
Luckily for me, my story has a happy ending. It took two weeks of calling, insisting, and finally demanding my ballot in person but I finally voted. If you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t give up! Call your local Board of Elections, your Clerk’s Office, or the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE. Ask about what options you have to fix the issue that is preventing you from voting. I would have never known I could pick up my replacement ballot had I not asked, and ultimately demanded it. And finally, plan to vote early, and if you haven’t submitted your ballot yet to bring it to one of your town or city’s multiple ballot dropboxes. The closer we get to Election Day the less likely your ballot will be counted by November 3rd. Voting early also decreases the likelihood of last-minute issues and reduces lines at the polls for other voters on Election Day.
Together we must carry the refrain of the Civil Rights Movement: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around; Turn me around; Turn me around…I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’; Keep on a-talkin’; Marchin’ up to freedom land!”