Reflecting on the 2020 Elections: Empower Others, Empower Yourself Through Civic Engagement

In the following essay, AFJ’s executive director Soffiyah Elijah reflects on the importance of active civic engagement and AFJ’s voter registration efforts this year:

For nearly two years, 17-year-old Amir had interned with the Alliance of Families for Justice (AFJ) performing a variety of mostly office related activities. However, his role was changing at AFJ now as he became the junior member of its “get out the vote” team.

Early on a Saturday morning in August, Amir joined a group of volunteers and family members from AFJ as they piled into a car after loading up the trunk with a tent, folding chairs, a folding table, voter registration forms, clip boards, surgical masks, pens, hand sanitizers, brochures, postcards and disinfectant wipes. They were headed to a Harlem location with a lot of foot traffic to set up their voter registration operation. As the car pulled up to the garbage-strewn sidewalk where they planned to spend the day, they smiled with excitement and enthusiasm. The team members spanned the socioeconomic spectrum; including formerly incarcerated people, family members with incarcerated loved ones and volunteers who, although not directly impacted, cared very much about the issues that mattered to their team members and wanted to support them however they were needed.

Like Amir, most of the team members had never done voter registration before. Some of them hadn’t even registered to vote until now. Like many of the people they would eventually register, they had given up. They didn’t believe that their voice mattered or that they could make a difference. All of that changed over the next three months. As the team unloaded the car and started setting up, they drew a great deal of attention from the local street people, shop owners and passersby. Dressed in their black AFJ T-shirts, they fanned up and down the block on Malcolm X Blvd. asking people if they were registered to vote and urging those who said “no” to come over to the tent, sit down and fill out the registration form. The team was prepared with voter registration forms written in Spanish, Chinese and English.

At first Amir was nervous. He wasn’t sure if people would speak to him or listen to what he had to say. The older members of the team encouraged him to keep trying and not give up. In a couple of hours, Amir was the star of the team, succeeding in getting many people to register and/or take some of the civic engagement materials to hand out to friends and family.

On that first Saturday and for many more to come, the team set up in the same location and began to be recognized by the locals as “ok”, “acceptable” and “doing something good for the community”. Word started to spread in the neighborhood that it was really easy to register to vote. All someone had to do was go over to the tent near the subway station in front of the fish place.

The team was prepared to answer questions, help people read and understand the voter registration form and explain that a felony conviction was no longer an obstacle to voting in New York due to an executive order that had been signed by the governor in April 2018. Most of the people who learned of this change were stunned. Some of them shared that they had just given up on voting because they mistakenly thought that their felony conviction was a permanent bar on voting. So many of them eagerly filled out the registration form once they understood their rights. After they completed the registration form many commented that they were going to get a friend or relative and let them know that they can now vote. Oftentimes in an hour or two, the recent registrant would return with one or more people who they had proudly recruited to register.

It was very clear during those months that the overwhelming majority of the people the AFJ team registered to vote, never would have done so without our patient and caring assistance. Literally bringing the opportunity to register to vote to someone’s front door made the difference. In many ways, it was reminiscent of the way civil rights workers went from door to door in rural parts of the South encouraging people to register to vote. As the weeks progressed, the significance of the work we were doing was internalized by everyone on the team.

For far too long in the United States, the accepted norm has been to disenfranchise people with a criminal history. Unlike in Puerto Rico, Maine and Vermont people incarcerated for felony convictions in 48 states are prohibited by statute from voting. And in some states, the existence of a felony conviction, no matter how old, is grounds for permanent disenfranchisement.

Most people would agree that a true democracy requires maximum participation by the populous in the civic process. The inclusion of all voices at the decision-making table ensures that all concerns are taken into consideration and that people feel invested in their government. There is no place where this is more evident than at the polls. Having a voice in deciding which local, state and national leaders will represent you and pursue your issues is central to true civic engagement.

Most importantly, as Amir can attest to first hand, true civic engagement enables citizens to make a reality of the phrase “by the people and for the people”.

AFJ is powered by and for the families of incarcerated New Yorkers and allies across the state. www.afj-ny.org