The Importance of Voter Engagement During Racial Uprisings and A Global Pandemic

In the wake of a global health pandemic and social uprisings, local leaders are also preparing for this year’s election by providing safe and accessible opportunities for residents to cast their ballots. Voting gives voice to communities’ needs and translates it into action.

In the coming weeks leading to the election, city leaders can commit to specific actions that will increase voter registration and voter turnout rates in their community. They can embed reminders to register to vote in their city services, like SNAP benefits or housing voucher programs. They can also use their megaphone, including their city website and social media accounts to educate residents on upcoming voter registration deadlines and to update them on changes to polling locations due to COVID-19.


Why City Leaders Need to Care About Voter Engagement – Boosting Registration, Education, Participation & Turnout

Municipalities are on the front lines of American democracy.

Every city leader can commit to two steps to address disenfranchisement in our current voting system to ensure that 100% of voters have a safe and accessible opportunity to cast a ballot in every election, regardless of a global pandemic:

  1. Undo what has been done to limit people’s ability to vote, including:
    • voter ID laws;
    • overly challenging voter registration processes;
    • Stripping incarcerated and formerly incarcerated peoples voting rights
    • inaccurate and overly aggressive voter purges; and
    • poll closures in predominantly Black, Indigenous, LatinX communities.
  2. Permanently improve voting options for all Americans. This includes:
    • Make vote-by-mail possible, a critical option in the COVID-19 global pandemic;
    • Make all absentee ballots “no excuse” absentee ballots, which doesn’t require a reason for requesting a vote-by-mail ballot OR which designates COVID-19 as an acceptable “excuse” to request an absentee ballot; and
    • Increase the number of “early vote” days that polling locations are open in order to reduce the size of crowds for those who have to or prefer to vote in-person.

Local leaders can make voter participation equitable for Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color (BIPOC) by increasing access to mail and/or early voting in cities and towns all over America. In doing so, they invite tens of millions of people into a more robust voting culture, a more representative government, and, in turn, gather momentum to ensure democratic participation for all.

The reality is since the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many other Black people in the last few months, local leaders have seen their residents take to the streets with demands for racial justice. These uprisings, like voting, are ways that residents communicate to leaders that the social contract needs revision, that harm has been caused and restorative action is needed.

These uprisings are an invitation from community members to improve living conditions for all residents. The residents of America’s cities, towns, and villages are opening up a civic dialogue that city leaders have the capacity to lead by showing residents that they are listening and committed to centering people most impacted by systemic injustices.

Doubling down on voter registration efforts is a tactic for advancing democracy. It ensures every eligible voter in the community has safe and accessible opportunities to cast their ballots in elections.

The problem is, voter turnout (or rather the lack thereof) falls on racial lines—Data shows that more White people vote in comparison to Black people.

In the same way that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities at significantly higher rates; and police brutality continues to impact Black communities disproportionately, voting policy introduces challenges to registration and turnout that are felt particularly in Black communities. Voter ID laws, challenging voter registration processes, minimal polling places, inaccurate and aggressive voter purges that prevent many Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Communities of Color from participating in elections.

As Connor Maxwell writes, “In North Carolina, for example, state legislators used new freedoms under Shelby County v. Holder to impose an ID requirement that accepted “only those types of photo ID disproportionately held by whites and excluded those disproportionately held by African-Americans.” The law was eliminated only after a federal court ruled that North Carolina sought to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Policy continues to make it more difficult for black voters to vote than white voters—just last month Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee signed a bill increasing punishments for certain protests that would give people felony charges for certain activities resulting in their loss of the right to vote.

Local leaders should not be satisfied with shallow and racist assumptions that Black voters, as a racial group, are less interested in voting than any other racial group. Every voice deserves to be heard.

Mayors and councilmembers can commit to taking a hard look at how election policies, practices, and procedures are leading to racial inequities in voter turnout in their city. Voting should be easy, safe and secure for 100% of the residents of every city. The work of building equitable communities will not be realized until we see 100% voter participation in every city and in every election.






About the authors:

Jordan Carter is a program manager with NLC’s Race, Equity And Leadership program.



Olivia Snarski is the program director in NLC’s Local Democracy program.