When Shelly Simonds ran for Virginia House of Delegates in 2016, she lost by the luck of the draw — literally. Simonds received the same number of votes as David Yancey. To break the tie, one name was picked out of a bowl — Yancey’s. Just like that, it was decided that the House of Delegates would be controlled by a majority that didn’t truly represent the will of Virginia voters.
Remember this story the next time someone tells you that one vote can’t make a difference. Every vote counts. The Sierra Club has been working to defend and expand access to voting since 2012 for that very reason. We know that voting is one crucial way we make our voices heard on the issues that matter most to us, whether that’s healthcare, the economy, or clean air and water.
Simonds ran again this year, and she won — not by a handful of votes, but with almost 60% of the vote. Because this time around she ran in a district that was redrawn after Virginia’s districts were found to be unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered. It was a fairer election.
Simonds’s story shows that we need to do more than just encourage people to vote, important as that is. We also have to help overcome the structural barriers that are being put in place to keep people from making their voices heard.
Ever since the Supreme Court seriously weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, we’ve seen a barrage of new laws aimed at keeping people from voting. Between 2016 and 2018, 17 million voters were purged from the rolls.
These new laws are sometimes presented as innocuous bureaucratic initiatives. But make no mistake: They’re just as racist and undemocratic as the poll taxes of the Jim Crow South.
These 21st-century voter-suppression tactics increase the likelihood that communities will be represented by someone who doesn’t actually represent their values or needs, who won’t fight for them in Congress and won’t be accountable to them. They decrease voters’ power, which increases the influence of wealthy donors and big corporations. And they overwhelmingly disenfranchise African Americans, Latinos, young people, college students, women, and the disabled.
None of that is good for people or the environment. That’s why this year the Sierra Club is expanding our voter outreach efforts in four states with histories of voter suppression: Georgia, Michigan, Florida, and Missouri. In Georgia alone, 1.4 million voter registrations were canceled between 2012 and 2018.
We’ll be connecting folks to voter-registration resources and educating them about their rights as voters and recent changes to voting laws in their state. And, of course, we’ll make sure that every one of our more than 4 million members and supporters is ready (and able) to vote next year.
That can start with you. Check that you’re registered to vote at your current address. Then ask three friends or neighbors whether they’re registered. Educate yourself about the voting laws in your state and how they might be disenfranchising people in your community. If you think it doesn’t matter — well, just remember what happened when an election was decided by picking a name out of a bowl.
Visit www.sierraclub.org/ReadyToVote to learn more.