Despite the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, African Americans still face barriers in their attempts to cast a ballot in local and national elections, if they opt to vote at all. These issues will be the focus of Jakobi Williams’ presentation, “The Black Vote: Social Justice, Advocacy and the Ballot,” on Feb. 6 at Ivy Tech.
Williams, a history professor at Indiana University, said one of the biggest problems keeping African Americans from voting is apathy.
“People between the ages of 18-35 are the people who don’t consistently show up to the polls,” Williams said. “A lot of students on college campuses don’t believe they should participate because they don’t think their voice matters. One of my presentation themes is: when we vote, we win, speaking particularly of African Americans.”
Williams cites the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, who had 96% — or 13% of the electorate — of African American voters supporting him, according to Politico in November 2008. That year, America saw the highest voter turnout in a national election for the first time in 40 years, at 61.6%, according to CBS News. This trend, however, was not consistent. In the 2016 general election, only 55.7% of registered voters showed up to the polls.
“If we don’t take an interest in the affairs of the government,” Williams said, “we are doomed to live under the rules of fools.”
Josiah McCruiston, 26, of Indianapolis, votes in every election. A registered Democrat, he votes to ensure his voice is heard.
“I vote because I know the value of voice matters,” McCruiston said. “I put every effort into making sure that my schools are well funded and water remains clean. … I vote because I don’t want to be the one who looks at the results and say[s] ‘I could have.’”
For some young adults, the feeling that their voices aren’t being heard keeps them from voting.
Michaela Harris, 23, has only voted in one local election since she’s been eligible to vote, and she doesn’t think it made much of a difference. While she cares about environmental and LGBTQ issues, she thinks a general lack of understanding on political issues keeps many young adults from voting.
“I feel like it’s weird for me to vote, because I don’t know what I’m voting for,” Harris said.
Harris, a junior at IUPUI, thinks colleges and universities should make more of an effort to educate students on current events.
“All of the prereqs [prerequisite classes] they make you take,” she said, “they all seem irrelevant. They should have a political science class as a prereq to show you what’s going on, and how government works. You learn about all of that once in high school, but not after that. And college is the most important time to learn about that, since that’s when you start voting.”
While apathy toward politics is an issue in African American communities, there are barriers such as voter ID laws in place to make it difficult for Black voters to cast a ballot.
Williams said voter ID laws and misinformation campaigns are the two most restrictive barriers African Americans face during elections.
In 2013, the Supreme Court made provisions to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which originally required states and local governments to get federal approval before implementing any changes to their voting laws or protections. In the aftermath of this ruling, many states, including Indiana, started requiring voters to have a government-issued identification card in order to cast a ballot.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, these laws overwhelmingly affect African Americans, as an estimated 25% of African Americans nationwide do not have a government-issued photo ID, as opposed to 8% of white Americans.
Misinformation campaigns through the internet and social media also keep African Americans from casting their ballots.
Ahead of the 2016 general election, much of the interference from Russia specifically targeted Black communities in the United States. In several instances, people pretended to be Black Lives Matter activists to discourage African Americans from voting — these messages went viral when shared on social media.
Williams said the solution to this issue is education and due diligence.
“Folks must be educated,” Williams said. “People want their news in 140 characters, and don’t want to take time to research. We have to show folks how to do due diligence.”
With the 2020 general election approaching, Williams hopes his message will spark conversations that will encourage African Americans to vote.
“I encourage everyone to go to the polls, because there are too many people who have sacrificed,” Williams said. “Women, African Americans and immigrants have fought and shed blood and given their lives to have that civic duty. Always exercise your civic duty, do your research, and always, always vote.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.