“Our Vote Counts”
A cross-cultural effort fosters civic engagement in activists’ own communities.
This past Friday evening, an alliance of 27 campus affinity organizations came together online for “Interconnections and Elections: A Cross-Cultural Voting Kickoff”—a two-hour event to boost voting engagement and civic participation among people of various cultural backgrounds. Event organizer Swathi Kella ’23 introduced the three panelists who led a discussion of issues disproportionately affecting communities of color and how students can strategize to maximize voter presence in the coming election.
Dianne Pinderhughes, a professor in Notre Dame’s departments of Africana studies and political science, reviewed the history of voting-rights legislation in the United States. The 1965 Voting Rights Act—pivotal in the fight against discrimination—allowed the federal government to intervene in any state-level voting laws likely to lead to disenfranchisement. Three successive changes broadened the act: the minimum voting age was lowered to 18 in 1970, more minority language provisions were established in 1975, and the Supreme Court recognized and accepted Majority Minority Districts in 1982. But progress was set back significantly after Shelby County v. Holder (2013). That Supreme Court case struck down Section 4 of the 1965 act, making it more difficult for the federal government to intervene. Several states, including Texas, Florida, and Georgia, immediately passed legislation that made it more difficult for BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) to vote.
Kristen Clarke ’97, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCRUL), spoke next. Clarke said the committee’s lawyers provide free legal support to make sure all communities have access to absentee, early, and “day-of” voting. She also spoke of how hostile groups are using the court system to try to restrict voters. “In 2018, student registration forms from George Mason University were purposely not being filed,” Clarke reported. “We filed a lawsuit and won, ensuring all registrations were counted.” Encouraging the students to consider a career in social justice, she stressed, “This line of work…we’re not going out of business anytime soon.”
Clarke’s colleague, Ajay Saini, counsel for the committee’s Voting Rights Project, spoke last. His team has filed more than 100 cases in the last year litigating state voting restrictions across the country, with mixed results. Saini emphasized that decade elections (2000, 2010, 2020, etc.) are very important for redistricting, because state legislatures depend on census data to draw lines. There are fewer census workers counting and recording data now, and the committee is currently litigating cases in which undocumented persons are not being counted.
A student asked what the goal of participating in elections was, especially with the Electoral College having the final say. Pinderhughes chimed in, “The system we have is the system we have. The president is in charge of appointing heads of departments, and the Department of Commerce is the location of the Census Bureau. It’s an uncomfortable answer, but it’s better to participate in the system than not to.” Saini agreed. “Working towards protecting the right to vote is a worthwhile endeavor,” he said. “But there’s more we can do to mobilize communities and effect the type of change we want to see.”
“What can we do to limit physical barriers to vote?” another student asked. Saini informed attendees that every state has organizations that try to amplify civic engagement. Because some states require a witness to the act of submitting an absentee ballot, he pointed out that one way to volunteer is to serve as a witness for someone else. He also suggested speaking to such a local organization to learn about specific restrictions, as well as about how the group can best use volunteer support.
Restrictions on and lack of trust in the U.S. Postal Service are also barriers that need to be recognized, Saini added. The reduction in overtime hours for postal workers and the removal of large mail-sorting machines means more mail is being held up. In some areas, the USPS is failing to postmark election forms—and election officials use the postmark to determine whether the form was delivered on time. The LCCRUL is currently litigating cases in the District of Columbia with USPS, but Saini also suggested raising concerns with local postal officials.
The final student question for the panel: “How impactful is one singular vote?” Pinderhughes encouraged attendees to think of their voter participation as a way to help sway their state’s majority. “You need to vote in the people who will implement the change you want to see happen.”
The second hour of the program presented leaders of cultural organizations on campus, who spoke about why voting is important to them.
Sahaj Singh ’23 of the Harvard South Asian Association told a personal story about why the right to vote means so much to him. “My parents were able to become citizens on time for the 2016 election, but my grandmother’s process was more complicated, and she could not become a citizen in time to vote.”
Many student leaders spoke of their privilege as Harvard-educated students who have the resources to help their communities vote. Representatives from the Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese associations emphasized that they will advocate with members of their cultural communities to participate when they would normally be inclined to stay neutral and decline to vote.
Orvin Pierre ’22 of the Harvard Black Men’s Forum encouraged attendees to “fight systemic oppression and mass incarceration. We must not fan the flames of hate and bigotry. Our lives depend on it.”
Jahnavi Rao ’22 rounded out the event, speaking about a nonprofit organization she is a part of called New Voters, which recruits high-school leaders to try and get 85 percent of eligible high-schoolers to vote.
The news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing broke during the event. There was a moment of silence—many were overcome with emotion. After a minute, a student uttered, “Our vote counts.” Everyone nodded in agreement.
A Message for Alumni
A number of students also responded when asked after the program, “What would you like Harvard alumni to know about the importance of voting?”
Janna Ramadan ’23 of the Harvard Islamic Society said, “As college students, we are put in a precarious situation with the difficulty of figuring out where and how to register to vote when we’re away at college. [There are] limitations on students as well as communities of color.”
“Don’t count us out,” Alexander Park ’23 of the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association said. “We’re counted out doubly, being students and of color. Alumni are very influential and make impactful decisions. Think of us and keep us in the forefront of your minds as you vote.”
Kyra March ’22 of the Association of Black Harvard Women urged alumni to reach out to students. “We are open to receiving guidance from alumni, who can help us come together to work for a common cause.”
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has an Election Protection Hotline to call if you are having trouble voting: 866-OUR-VOTE
Harvard students can fill out a pledge to vote, which includes useful links for voter registration.