By Jean Willoughby | Published: 10/20/2020, Updated: 10/30/2020
Voting is such a powerful tool for impacting our communities that it’s often said that “your vote is your voice.” If that statement strikes you as naïve, consider the resources invested in voter suppression in just the past decade, in which partisan and racial gerrymandering reshaped the electorate wholesale.
Or consider the incredible disinvestment in voting infrastructure across the country. Since 2013, more than 1,600 polling places have been closed in counties with high populations of Black and Latinx voters covered by the Voting Rights Act, according to a report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Voting rights have been under attack since the founding of the nation, but never before have such enormous financial resources, shrewd strategies, and sophisticated technologies been deployed to limit the power of voters.
Why suppress the vote to the tune of tens of millions of dollars or thousands of polling place closings? The conclusion is inescapable: Voting is powerful, and there are people and organizations working very hard to make sure we don’t do it. There is no better recent evidence than the 2016 and 2018 elections. For any committed nonvoters, I offer a thought from writer David Foster Wallace: “In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.”1
In The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the Present, American University professor Allan Lichtman places the latest war on voting rights in historical context. He concludes with recent victories that are working to resolve this long crisis and finally end the undignified struggle to vote in the world’s “oldest continuous democracy.” To begin at the beginning, the founders did not establish a right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. Voting was left up to the states. Only those who met certain property qualifications were generally allowed to vote, a practice that continued into the 1850s, ensuring that wealthy, white men dominated government. After the passage of the 15th Amendment, the vote could not be explicitly denied on the basis of race. So other discriminatory practices were developed such as poll taxes and literacy tests.
Over the course of a century, hard-fought battles secured ballot access for white women in 1920, for people of Asian ancestry in 1952, for Native American people during the 1920s and again in the 1950s and 60s, and for Black people in 1965. But the work was not done. In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed another extension to help end discrimination against “language minorities,” encompassing tens of millions of citizens—largely Spanish-speaking Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans—who had been left out of the 1965 law. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan signed a fourth extension of the Voting Rights Act to further strengthen provisions against discrimination. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 unleashed a wave of gerrymandering and ended a thirty-year experiment of allowing Black and Latinx voters, among other voters of color, access to the ballot on par with white voters.
Our country’s legacy of land theft and dispossession is connected to present struggles against voter suppression and to efforts for a just food system. In a word, it’s all about land. People often refer to America’s “political landscape,” a phrase that could not be more apt. In the United States, politics and elections are deeply constrained by geography. Where we vote can be just as important as who we vote for and which party, if any, we support.
Our country’s legacy of land theft and dispossession is connected to present struggles against voter suppression and to efforts for a just food system. In a word, it’s all about land.
Two institutions established at the nation’s founding helped ensure this result. Of the three major compromises crafted at the Constitutional Convention of 1787—the Three-Fifths Compromise, the Great Compromise establishing the Senate, and the Electoral College—two are still with us.
Back then, the Electoral College helped guarantee the presidency to a slaveholding white Virginian for the first 32 years of the Constitution’s existence, according research published in TIME Magazine. Now it “magnifies the power of white voters,” according to an analysis published by Vox finding that “per voter, whites have 16 percent more power than blacks once the Electoral College is taken into consideration, 28 percent more power than Latinos, and 57 percent more power than those who fall into the other category.” As a consequence, today “geography does the work of Jim Crow laws,” as noted legal scholar john a. powell once remarked in the context of racially discriminatory housing policies.
It gets worse. Consider the Senate. “By 2040, 70 percent of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states… That means that 70 percent of Americans get all of 30 Senators and 30 percent of Americans get 70 Senators,” as political scientist David Birdsell put it. The Washington Post has reported that within 20 years, half of the population will live in eight states. Our political future looks stark.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
By expanding land access to historically excluded and disenfranchised people, we can help change the voting calculus and restore power to communities. Farm by farm, rural America can receive a diverse new generation of stewards and begin to reverse a century of rural population decline. Through ensuring land access and secure tenure, we can build collective power as we take on the work of caring for ourselves and the land. This is possible if we give people good reasons to want to live and work in rural America and smaller population states, good reasons like thriving economies, beautiful landscapes, and community-centered farms. If people love living and working in farming communities, they’ll want to defend them too. That could spur a new generation of political leadership more committed to people and places than to party and personal gain, the kind of leaders who will protect and expand voting rights instead of weakening them.
History tells us that we can never discount the impact of race and politics on the food system. Today, approximately 98 percent of farmland is owned by white people, an inequity that is far worse in 2020 than it was in 1920, as a result of not only our long history of economic and social injustice but of political choices and inaction. Our political leadership impacts the agricultural policies that affect countless farmers’ lives. As many who have come before us experienced first-hand, including the creators of the first Community Land Trust, a hostile political and social climate can undermine long-term efforts for equitable land access and community-centered agriculture.2
Racism has been etched into the landscape. It can be overwritten in part by new visions and plans for community-centered agriculture. Working for racial equity and expanding land access are two interlocking strategies that will allow us to achieve this transformation.
GOTV: Get Out the Vote
Support Indigenous, Latinx, and Black led groups and multiracial coalitions in fighting voter suppression.
- Four Directions: Native voting rights, empowerment, protection, and engagement
- Mijente: Mobilizing for voter outreach and ending voter suppression in Latinx communities
- Reclaim Our Vote: Nonpartisan voter outreach to help empower voters of color and fight voter suppression
- Showing Up for Racial Justice: Sign up to be an election defender
BOOK: The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the Present, Allan Lichtman, Harvard University Press
REPORT: Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
FILM: Slay the Dragon (2019) End Gerrymandering or Democracy Dies. We Can Stop It.
1. David Foster Wallace’s full quote from his essay in Rolling Stone: “If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.”
2. The first Community Land Trust in the United States, New Communities, Inc., was founded by a group of Black farmers in Georgia. It operated from 1969 to 1985.
Jean Willoughby serves as the Strategic Initiatives Director at Agrarian Trust. Over the past decade, she has worked in farm advocacy, farmland preservation, and racial equity education and organizing. Her writing has been featured in YES! Magazine, Pressenza, MAKE: Magazine, and The New Farmer’s Almanac. She also co-wrote and produced the documentary film Under Contract: Farmers and the Fine Print (2017).