From the Collective

Voting Can’t Change Our History. But It Can Change Our Future.

Lexi Reese and Bernard Coleman

This week marks a milestone in our country’s complex history of voting rights, less than 80 days from a historic national election. 

One hundred years ago, the Nineteenth Amendment prevented the government from discriminating against voters on the basis of sex – a landmark decision often celebrated as the moment women gained the right to vote. However, that moment did not include Black women or women of color. This anniversary is a moment to honor the suffragette movement that made change possible, and to acknowledge the amendment was primarily a step forward for White women. A century later, the right to vote still doesn’t extend freely and fairly to all Americans.

Until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – 45 years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment – the government continued to legally discriminate against Black women and men at the polls. It’s just one example of the enduring status quo, even in the face of progress. Oppressive systems don’t disappear; they mutate and re-emerge, often more subtly. 

As business leaders, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to keep a vigilant eye on those systems and help build more equitable ones – and voting is the best tool to do so. Our role in this movement is to activate our companies and networks, and to amplify the voices of people who are fighting for these rights. 

The devastating impact of inequality

Everything is at stake in the upcoming election for all communities. Historical disenfranchisement perpetuates inequality and undermines the promise of the American dream. This election is about equal access to health care in the time of COVID-19, civil rights, checks and balances in the judicial system, and economic stability, among so many other things. 

At Gusto, we’ve seen up close how COVID-19 has devastated small businesses – particularly Black-owned small businesses. Recent data shows that Black-owned businesses were twice as likely to close permanently in the early stages of the pandemic. The disproportionate hardship stems from historically-rooted inequities like a lack of access to financing and uneven aid distribution. 

Business leaders can take steps to address these inequities, but only policy can solve them at scale. The first step is to vote for elected officials we trust to act in everyone’s best interests. As Stacy Abrams recently wrote about the importance of voting, “You can have a car with all the bells and whistles – but if it doesn’t have wheels, you can’t move forward.”

Instituting voting rights leads to meaningful change, as history has shown many times. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965, registration among Black voters in the south skyrocketed, the number of Black-elected officials jumped, and there were long-term gains in Black employment and income. 

Today, voting rights are in danger again. Where there were once poll taxes and literacy tests, politicians are implementing voter ID laws and other changes that are proven to disproportionately hurt people of color. States including Kentucky and Texas have shuttered polling places that primarily serve Black communities.

What you can do to support voting rights for all

Much of what we can do to combat this is simple. As citizens, we can register and vote, support automatic voter registration, and educate ourselves about how historical systems of oppression shift and re-emerge. Apathy is as much of a threat to our democratic system as active suppression. In 2016, roughly 60 percent of the citizen voting-age population exercised that right. 40 percent did not participate.

As leaders, we have the power to mobilize our families, neighbors, and communities. We can use our networks and company platforms to educate people – about how to register, how and when to vote, and how to vote early and in-person. And we can activate people to get involved at a grassroots level by volunteering at the polls and registering people to vote.

Many of us are also in a position to amplify the voices of this movement’s leaders. That means using our personal platforms to ensure their words are heard. We should take another lesson from the history of the Nineteenth Amendment and make sure the stories of today’s activists are not lost to history, as much of the Black suffragettes’ work has been. 

Voting can’t change our history, but it can change our future

There’s reason to be hopeful – because of this leadership and the energy that’s fueling activism today, and because 2020 has shown us that nothing is inevitable. Now is the time to use our influence to make progress for long-oppressed communities. Voting is the foundation.

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