The Struggle for the Vote: Black History Month 2020

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

2020 is a landmark year for voting rights; it marks the 150th anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), which gave Black men the right to vote following the Civil War, as well as the centennial of the 19th Amendment (1920) and the culmination of the women’s suffrage movement. This year’s theme for Black History Month – African Americans and the Vote – recognizes the struggle for voting rights among both Black men and women throughout American history. The fight for a say in our democracy has continued well into the 21st century, and barriers to voting disproportionately impact the populations we serve at Central City Concern (CCC). Racial discrimination and interaction with the criminal justice system are not only among the leading causes of homelessness, but voter disenfranchisement as well. And poverty, housing instability and homelessness create significant obstacles for voters.

While the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments granted voting rights to Americans regardless of race or gender, the struggle for access to the ballot box has been ongoing. During the Jim Crow era in the South following the end of the Civil War, state and local governments evaded the Fifteenth Amendment through polling taxes, literacy tests, “whites-only” primaries and open hostility and violence. The federal government didn’t ban Jim Crow voting laws until 1965 with the Voting Rights Act, and barriers remain for Black people and people of color today. Voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color, and mail-in ballots create barriers for people who have difficulty reading English. Even in Oregon, where voter turnout is among the highest in the nation, Black people and people of color as a whole are less likely to vote than their white counterparts.

Our neighbors experiencing housing instability and homelessness face additional barriers to the ballot box. Voter registration and mail-in ballots are particularly challenging for people without a stable mailing address. Lack of identification is another obstacle in registering to vote that disproportionately impacts poor and homeless individuals. In Oregon, voters without access to housing can use the county elections office as their mailing address, but transportation can make it difficult to utilize. And unfortunately, many people struggling with homelessness have more immediate needs to worry about than registering to vote.

While obstacles to voting for Black people, people of color and people experiencing homelessness are significant, CCC is working not only to alleviate voter disenfranchisement, but also provide our clients with avenues to make direct impact on our political processes and systems. CCC regularly promotes voter registration and Get Out the Vote efforts for our residents, patients and clients. On National Voter Registration Day in 2019, Next Up Oregon volunteers registered 120 people at Old Town Clinic, Old Town Recovery Center, the Richard Harris, Estate Hotel and Blackburn Center. We also provide pathways for those most severely affected by voter disenfranchisement to make direct, tangible impact on policy change. Through Flip the Script, our reentry program providing wraparound services to African Americans exiting incarceration, participants advocate for change in the reentry system by meeting with legislators, providing public testimony and sharing their experiences and expertise with lawmakers.

We believe that the voices of our clients, our communities of color and our neighbors experiencing homelessness matter. While much work remains in ensuring that everyone has a say in our democracy, we will continue to meet the individual needs of our clients, alleviate barriers to their right to vote, and work alongside our clients to impact systems and make their voices heard.