On Saturday, Oct. 10, the Association of Black Princeton Alumni (ABPA) hosted “Countdown to Election 2020,” a panel discussion that centered around the importance of voting in the Nov. 3 election and examined voter suppression in the United States.
The panel comprised Chair of the African American Studies Department Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. GS ’97, Andrea Campbell ’04, Tessa Kaneene ’07, Walter Jones ’85, Morgan Jerkins ’14, and the Rev. Paul Roberts ’85, with Cheryl Scales ’84 as moderator.
Pre-recorded addresses from U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Craig Robinson ’83 bookended the discussion. Booker is an honorary member of Princeton’s Class of 2018.
From the beginning, the panelists warned against attacks on Black Americans’ voting rights.
In his opening remarks, Booker said, “We know this election there will be a lot of efforts trying to suppress the vote, intimidate the vote, stop us from having a large and vibrant turnout, especially targeted towards marginalized communities, towards Black folks.”
Booker also stressed this election’s urgency, saying, “For many Americans, this will be a life or death election. Whether they have access to healthcare, affordable prescription drugs, whether they encounter a criminal justice system that is actually just.”
Scales began by posing the question, “Why do you vote?” The panelists responded with their own reasons, which ranged from the importance of representation to safeguarding democracy for their children and future generations.
“Black lives matter, but history indicates that Black lives matter more in this country when we vote,” Roberts said.
Jones, a former diplomat, said, “I vote for very personal reasons. I vote for my great-grandmother, who was a slave in Georgia ... and I’m also voting for my mother’s great-grandfather, who fought in the Massachusetts 54th.”
Kaneene, who worked with the late Rep. John Lewis and whose grandfather helped draft Uganda’s constitution 59 years ago, explained that she votes because she “can’t imagine letting that torch drop.”
The ensuing discussion focused on contemporary attempts at voter suppression. Glaude offered a historical account of voter suppression. “Democracy in the United States,” he said, “has always been shadowed by the exception regarding the place of Black folk in the body politic. It’s always been the case.”
To explain how racist disenfranchisement afflicts the United States today, Glaude pointed to Shelby County v. Holder, a 2013 Supreme Court decision that overturned key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Campbell, a candidate in Boston’s 2021 mayoral race, said, “I am often telling folks here in in the ‘progressive state’ — put that in quotes — of Massachusetts that voter suppression is real, but not just in Southern states, and telling folks that there [are] intentional efforts and strategies ... to ensure that those who are formerly incarcerated do not vote, those who are Black and low-income do not vote.”
Campbell further observed, “there’s an election every single year in Massachusetts, but if you were to go around and ask the average person in the city of Boston, they wouldn’t know that.”
Jones and Roberts both discussed contemporary voter suppression through the lens of economic injustice. Citing the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling, Jones argued that the votes of citizens who possess capital count far more than others.
“It watered down our influence as voters to the extent that we do not have the same degree of access to capital,” Jones said.
Roberts elaborated, discussing how voter suppression manifests in “the way people are oppressed in order to ensure that profits are created and sustained and maintained at the top.”
Jerkins, who criticized Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s recent attempt to eliminate polling stations, encouraged people to donate to organizations such as the Florida Rights Restoration Commission, which seeks to enfranchise formerly incarcerated citizens.
Kaneene discussed modern voter suppression in the context of gerrymandering, or the redrawing of political lines.
“The deepest forms of voter suppression actually happen in the off-season through our methods of gerrymandering,” she said. “We’re still operating within the lines and districts that were drawn in 2011.”
She went on to explain how that reality makes this moment all the more crucial, as the country stands on the precipice of electoral change.
“Those who are voted into power in November will be able to go through the exercise next year to be able to hopefully draw lines that are more fair,” she said.
Glaude argued this political moment represents “the end result of forty years of living under an ideology, political and economic, that has revealed itself to be bankrupt,” to the extent that “liberty is now a synonym for selfishness.”
To underscore the ramifications of sitting out this election, Glaude said, “I don’t think the country can survive another four years of Donald Trump.”
Jones agreed, explaining, “the meritocracy has ceased to exist with this administration.”
Roberts recalled that he had “played and re-played Ahmaud Arbery’s lynching, and I have watched that thing just bit by bit by bit and tried to put myself in that young man’s shoes.”
“I run,” he continued. “I live in Atlanta — I run the streets of Atlanta. And I have a brown-skinned daughter and a brown-skinned son, and another brown-skinned son, all of whom run.”
“What’s at stake for me is the safety of these children that my wife and I have borne,” he added. “In this election in particular, if it goes the way I hope it doesn’t, I think our safety, our security, our understanding of inherent human value is done.”
Robinson delivered the closing address, in which he said the “oppression some believe ended after Jim Crow is still very much alive in 2020.”
Robinson echoed much of what Booker discussed. “Want to make a statement that bigotry and hate have no place in America? Vote,” he urged. “Want to make your voice heard? Vote. You want change? Vote.”
He listed some of the many informational resources available to voters, including a website created by his sister, former First Lady Michelle Obama ’85. Robinson closed the event with a call to action: “Be that change. Fight for justice. Make your voice heard. Vote.”