By Leigh Creighton Bond • April 30, 2020•Writers in Residence
“I do not understand why staying home is so hard. 105 million of you managed it on Election Day in 2016.” I saw this quote on social media and it stung hard. Many times over, especially in times of crisis and national events, society has failed to seek out the entire story. The incomplete narrative that folks stayed home when they should have voted or fail to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic reminds me of Hurricane Katrina. More specifically, I am reminded of the deep spiritual and personal connection I experienced witnessing Hurricane Katrina from afar, yet so close to my heart as a Black Southerner with parents who came from poor backgrounds. “Why didn’t they leave?” was a common critique propped up by media sources.
“They stayed home” or “why can’t they stay home?” are not the right phrases. For many, the question — the right question centers access to choice. Did everyone have access to all the resources (including cultural norms, education, finances, community, etc.) necessary to exercise a choice? If not, then the choice is moot.
Minorities and low income communities did not have access to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina. Similarly, despite an unprecedented modern day pandemic, many people, especially, women and people of color have no choice but to go to work, find ways to provide for their family and communities, and risk heightened exposure to COVID-19. And looking back to the 2016 Presidential election, voter suppression prevented choice for many marginalized communities, including women, people of color, and low income individuals. All you have to do is read the first page of Professor Carol Anderson’s book, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.
Advocates have called attention to and fought for more than choice throughout the reproductive justice movement. Leading up to and following the Supreme Court legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade, reproductive justice advocates focused on the issues that prevented access to abortion care and other reproductive care for marginalized communites, especially Black women, low income populations, and other people of color who can get pregnant. Today, advocates continue to apply the evolving framework of reproductive justice to a variety of issues including climate change and voter suppression.
The effects of voter suppression in a pandemic look much the same as voter suppression in a crisis caused by weather (sometimes referred to as climate change). Right now, officials planning several local and state elections across the nation are pushing forward with those elections and not wholly accounting for the deathly danger voters face in a pandemic. A “vote or die” scenario does not offer a choice; yet, reproductive justice advocates have acknowledged the powerful place a right to vote holds in the reproductive justice movement. The election of Donald Trump illustrates that “elections do matter;” but if it isn’t already clear, there’s no answer to whether one should vote or die.