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Two women standing in front of the Capitol building, symbolizing democracy and political power.

Full Political Participation

The Dēmos Power Agenda: A Framework for Building People Power offers a roadmap for our shared future. Full Political Participation is the third of five pillars of the Power Agenda, reflecting our affirmative vision for ensuring political power for all.

Dēmos envisions a democracy where systems are designed to encourage and cultivate the fullest expression of political voice by all. 

Structural inequality and racism hinder Black and brown people from wielding their full political power. From voter suppression tactics to laws that criminalize protest, our political infrastructure does not enable all people to participate in our democracy fully and freely.

To ensure full political participation for all, Dēmos is focused on:

  • Building systems and institutions where people influence the policies that shape their lives and communities, including through direct action and ballot initiatives.
  • Expanding access to voting and centering pro-voter policies that reduce the racial voter turnout gap, including robust language access. 
  • Guaranteeing fair and equal representation for Black and brown communities by passing state and federal legislation that strengthens the right to vote, protects against racial vote dilution, and restores and supplements the Voting Rights Act. 
  • Challenging voter suppression laws and other antidemocratic practices that target Black and brown communities, including laws that restrict and criminalize protest.

Where We Are and How We Got Here

Black and brown people lack full political power in America. Our elections are a striking example of this. Voter turnout data from recent elections shows a severe and persistent turnout gap between whites and Black, Latino, and Asian American voters.77 In the 2006, 2010, and 2014 midterm elections, Latino and Asian American turnout was less than half that of white voters.78 Even in the historic 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, Black turnout lagged substantially behind white turnout, with a turnout gap of over 10 percent.79 And in the 2020 presidential election—when Black, Latino, and Asian American voters all turned out in record numbers80 —white turnout still surpassed Black and brown turnout by over 12 percentage points.81

The racial turnout gap persists because Black and brown voters continue to face numerous social and structural barriers to full political participation, including economic barriers. For example, lack of access to reliable transportation, affordable childcare, and paid leave from work make showing up to the polls more difficult for low-income voters82 —and Black, Latino, and Indigenous voters are more likely to be low-income.83 Compounding these barriers are voter suppression laws that increase in the wake of high Black and brown voter turnout84 and disproportionately burden Black and brown voters.85 For example, after high Black voter participation in the 2020 presidential elections and the 2021 Senate runoff elections,86 Georgia legislators passed S.B. 202, a 98-page omnibus elections bill that, among other things, imposed numerous restrictions on voting by mail87 —a method of voting that Black and Asian American voters have used at persistently higher rates than white voters in recent elections.88

While racist election practices have long been a part of American history, today’s voter suppression laws result directly from the Supreme Court’s undoing of the Voting Rights Act’s (VRA) most powerful tool— the preclearance provision.89 For nearly 50 years, preclearance acted as a bastion against voter suppression by prohibiting states with a history of racial discrimination from changing their voting laws or redrawing district maps without the federal government’s approval.90 But the Supreme Court gutted the preclearance provision a decade ago in Shelby County v. Holder, opening the floodgates for states to pass discriminatory laws that make accessing the ballot harder,91 especially for Black voters in the South.92 The Black-white turnout gap has widened post-Shelby County in several Southern states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas.93 Since 2013, at least 29 states have passed 94 laws that make voting more difficult.94 The trend has accelerated recently, especially in red states after the 2020 Presidential election. In 2023 alone, at least 14 states passed 17 laws restricting voting.95 The elimination of preclearance has also cleared the way for lawmakers to freely manipulate the redistricting process to strip Black and brown voters of the power to elect representatives of their choice. As of July 2023, a total of 74 lawsuits were filed challenging congressional or legislative maps in 27 states as racially discriminatory or partisan gerrymanders, and in some instances both.96  

Making matters worse, the Supreme Court, in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, also weakened the VRA’s main enforcement mechanism—Section 2— diminishing Black and brown voters’ ability to contest voting rights violations in court.97 While Section 2 remains a critical tool for protecting voters from discriminatory practices, it remains vulnerable to further and more aggressive attacks. In a decision that radically departs from decades of legal precedent, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that only the Department of Justice can sue to enforce voting rights under Section 298 —even though voters and other private parties have been plaintiffs in most of the successful Section 2 cases filed in the last 40 years.99  

And even where our government is not actively erecting barriers, it does far too little to encourage and facilitate the full political participation of all communities. Since Shelby County, Congress has failed to pass any legislation, such as the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,100 to restore and strengthen key provisions of the VRA, including preclearance. Nor has Congress passed legislation that moves beyond merely rooting out discrimination in voting to advance policies that proactively expand ballot access and close the turnout gap. The lack of baseline national voting standards has left voters at the whims of state legislatures, making access to the ballot vary widely across states. For example, only about half of states offer automatic or same-day voter registration.101 Language access also remains an area of deep underinvestment despite evidence of its positive impact on voter participation by Latino, Asian American, American Indian, and Alaskan Native communities.102 In Georgia, for example, Gwinnett County is the sole county—out of 159 counties—that is mandated by Section 203 of the VRA to offer limited English proficient (LEP) Latino voters an official ballot in Spanish, leaving the 52,920 LEP Latino voters who live outside of Gwinnett County uncovered.103 This means that approximately three out of every four of Georgia’s LEP Latino voters are forced to use English-only ballots.104  

The denial of political voice to Black and brown people also extends far beyond the ballot box. Laws that restrict and criminalize protest and other means of organizing also threaten Black and brown political power-building. Black and brown leaders who are on the front lines of fighting for racial justice are increasingly at risk of state-sanctioned harm. Anti-protest laws often come on the heels of large-scale protests,105 like how voter suppression laws emerge after strong Black and brown voter turnout. For example, after the Trump administration’s Muslim ban sparked protests at airports across the country in 2017, the Denver International Airport began requiring protestors to seek preapproval for any demonstration.106 The Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after George Floyd’s murder in 2020—which included as many as 26 million participants nationally107 — similarly prompted a spate of anti-protest legislation.108 Since 2017, 45 states have considered 285 bills that restrict the right to protest; 42 of these bills were enacted while 24 are still pending.109 Recent crackdowns on organizing efforts have also not been limited to the right to protest. States are also criminalizing community-based efforts to assist or mobilize voters. In Florida, lawmakers banned noncitizens from handling voter registrations.110 And in Georgia, providing water or food to voters waiting in long lines at the polls is now a crime.111

What This Means For Our Families, Communities, And Our Nation

When all people are not fully included and active in our democracy, the policies that shape and govern our lives will not reflect the richness and diversity of our country. Even though America is more racially and ethnically diverse than it has ever been,112 the white electorate still has an outsized role in determining election outcomes and shaping public policy. This political inequality results in a government that is less representative of and responsive to Black and brown communities, which in turn perpetuates racial disparities in economic security and mobility. 

Our systems and institutions do not promote or support the full political participation of Black and brown people at the polls or beyond. Indeed, our policymakers too often erect barriers to actively suppress Black and brown voter turnout and thwart other exercises of political power, such as protesting. Beyond the direct negative effects of restrictive voting laws and anti-protest laws, these suppressive tactics can also cause people to lose faith in our democratic systems, further deterring their political participation. Additionally, restrictions on political expression lock organizers, advocates, and lawmakers into battles to protect the status quo, taking time and resources away from efforts to expand political power for Black and brown people. 

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