“Politics is broken, and the people that broke it aren't going to fix it. And so it's got to be up to us. It's got to be up to the people to make those changes,” claims Ashleigh Strange from Pennsylvania. Here is her story – and those of women in Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada, who mobilised and made a difference. Across the country, women of colour took to the streets, embraced social media, challenged their neighbours – did whatever they could to make sure their voices were heard.
Ashleigh Strange, Pennsylvania
Voter turnout in the US consistently falls behind that of most developed countries. One reason for this discrepancy is that many Americans believe that an individual vote will have little impact on a major election.
In January 2020, Strange of Lehigh Valley Stands Up (LVSU) (part of Pennsylvania Stands Up, a resistance group born in 2016 following Donald Trump’s presidential win) began to seek out people who felt this way. People who felt their voices didn’t matter. By validating their claims of feeling invisible and listening to their stories, Strange was able to start pushing a different narrative.
“They know that no matter who they vote for on that ballot, that person isn't going to care about them. And we’re saying, ‘Look, of course politicians don't care about you. You're not wrong.’ But it is up to us to make sure that we get politicians in there that care about us, and that know our struggles,” said Strange.
People in marginalised communities often believe their vote will do little to improve their economic standing. “So part of what we've been doing is the long and difficult process of connecting policy to pain, saying, okay, you're on food stamps, and you've been living pay cheque to pay cheque. But how are we going to connect that pain to the people and the politics and the policies that are keeping you in that position? And how can we make that change together?” explained Strange.
Wearing a COVID-19 mask, fist in the air and kneeling in front of the Lehigh County Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Strange recited the powerful words of Assata Shakur, former member of the 1970s Black Liberation Movement: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Nse Uffort, Georgia
Understanding the obstacles inhibiting people, especially Black Americans, from casting their ballots, drives the work of people like Nse Uffort, CEO of The New Georgia Project (TNGP), a non-partisan voter registration group. There is also widespread evidence that thousands of African Americans have been purged from voter rolls in Georgia.
In an interview with ABC News, Uffort stressed the importance of meeting people where they are, whether that’s a church or a bus stop. TNGP provided hundreds of rides to the polls during the presidential election for communities that lack public transport, making early voting easier and alleviating long lines on election day.
Young voters in Georgia contributed to about 21% of voters in the state, giving Biden about 188,000 more votes than Trump. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, youth voter turnout in Georgia (ages 18-29) was the highest of any state. To reach different demographics of eligible voters, TNGP thought outside the box. They used Twitch (the popular platform for gamers), hosting a livestream on election day that drew more than half a million unique viewers. For 12 hours, #TwitchTheVote rallied young voters with live gaming, music performances and popular speakers such as actress Rosie Perez.
Naomi Hollard, Wisconsin
Over the past four years, young voters, activists, and politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represent just the peak of a movement which is beginning to shape American politics. One woman who has played a key role in that movement is 21-year-old, Naomi Hollard, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
When Trump won the state in the 2016 US presidential election, Hollard couldn’t vote. She was just 17. Today, she travels the country not only speaking on topics such as climate change and social justice, but on organising movements. Hollard has become a key organiser with the youth climate network the Sunrise Movement, mobilising young people to vote and demand action from the politicians they vote for.
Hollard has also played a role organising Black Lives Matter protests in the state, after Jacob Blake was shot seven times by policemen in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August. Hollard has been described by one of her fellow organisers as “exactly the kind of personality that draws people together”.
Ginger Sykes-Torres, Arizona
Arizona, a state that has always backed the Republican presidential candidate since 1952 (with the exception of Bill Clinton in 1996), flipped from red (Republican) to blue (Democrat) in 2020. Much attention has been given to Hispanic or Latino voters for their impact on getting others registered to vote and to follow through all the way to the polls. For the first time ever, the 2020 election saw the number of eligible Hispanic voters surpass that of Black Americans.
However, women like Ginger Sykes-Torres recognized a gap in Native American voices in the media and online: “Everything was constrained in this election because of COVID-19. I really tried to channel my energies into a place that I felt was effective and I thought that social media would be very effective.” Torres conducted a lot of Native American outreach online, highlighting policy plans and national Native endorsements by the Biden campaign.
“Everything was constrained in this election because of COVID-19”
An environmental consultant, and a member of the Navajo tribe, one of Torres’ priorities during the election was to elevate local native voices. She helped create ‘Diné4Biden’ T-shirts, stickers and yard signs to help boost Navajo enthusiasm. “‘Diné’ means ‘the people’, it's what Navajos call ourselves,” Torres explained.
Indigenous groups in Arizona and across the US have been hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19. About 173,000 members are part of the Navajo reservation, which extends from parts of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Many lack access to running water or electricity, making it difficult to follow coronavirus prevention guidelines. “People are still hesitant to go out in person. They don't want to expose themselves because the virus is starting to ramp back up now in the Navajo Nation. Just registering people [to vote] is a challenge,” said Torres.
There are other challenges too, explained Torres. “The Navajo Nation is the size of West Virginia. Proportionally there aren't as many polling locations on the Navajo Nation. People would have to drive 100 miles just to reach their polling site and then drive the same to get back home. There's also a mailing issue – a lot of homes don't have actual addresses. It was very difficult for people in rural areas because they don't have a physical address to put on their voter registration form.”
Torres’s motivation to organise in this year’s election came out of passion and desperation.
“Watching a lot of the environmental regulations and policies be rolled back was very alarming. Those protections are even more important in disadvantaged Native communities. The last four years have gone against everything I've done to promote widespread renewable energy. All of that went out the window,” said Torres.
Emily Zamora, Nevada
Emily Zamora, who is Indo-Caribbean and Latina, is the executive director of Silver State Voices (SSV), a non-profit coalition of 18 organisations in the state of Nevada. “All of our organisations, in some shape or form, focus on Black, indigenous, people of colour, and the varying issues they may have,” said Zamora.
Zamora’s motivation to mobilise voters was founded in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected president. She fell into a state of deep depression.
“There were points I couldn't even get out of bed, it was just so depressing.”
“There were points I couldn't even get out of bed, it was just so depressing.”
She used to work in immigration legal cases and describes the high level of panic and fear. “I would get calls and text messages constantly: ‘What's going to happen to me? What's going to happen with my case.’ I thought to myself, that under the current administration, it was going to be really difficult to organize within immigration. I needed a different strategy.” She found that in voter registration.
“In 2019, our coalition supported an assembly bill to restore the automatic voting rights to formerly incarcerated folks with a felony conviction. We helped to get this bill passed,” said Zamora.
But the work didn’t stop there. SSV then had to go to the thousands of people affected and educate them on the restoration of their voting rights. Education isn’t enough, said Zamora: “It's also building trust with people that they can register to vote, that they can participate and have trust in the system.”
With Joe Biden poised to move into the White House, these women are now holding him accountable to serve the people that got him elected, rather than big industry and corporations.
Back in Pennsylvania, Strange explains what she and many others want to see from the president-elect. “He needs to step up to green alternatives, taking a giant step away from the fossil fuel industry,” she said.
“He needs to be held accountable for immigration. He really needs to step up and take responsibility and end a lot of the terror that's been happening not just at the border, but right here in Pennsylvania, where the Berks County Detention Center has locked up mothers with children as young as nine months old. We need health care that is going to be accessible and available to everyone.”
Ousting Trump from office was only half the battle. The people are demanding real change and now they see how powerful their voices really are.
* Additional reporting by Caroline Molloy and Adam Ramsay