So many Americans still struggle to win the vote

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Former First Lady Michelle Obama offered a clear and full-throated call for a united electorate and a better democracy in her speech at the virtual Democratic National Convention last night.

She began by condemning the Trump presidency in no uncertain terms.

“Whenever we look to this White House for some leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness, what we get instead is chaos, division, and a total and utter lack of empathy,” Obama said. And she affirmed her belief in his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. “Joe knows the anguish of sitting at a table with an empty chair, which is why he gives his time so freely to grieving parents,” she continued. “His life is a testament to getting back up, and he is going to channel that same grit and passion to pick us all up, to help us heal and guide us forward.”

But despite the divisive and desperate times in which we live — “if you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can,” she said — she also asked us to stick to the high road, even now.

“Going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else,” she said. “We degrade ourselves. We degrade the very causes for which we fight.”

It was a powerful moment and a poignant preview of today’s solemn remembrance: A century ago today, white women won the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment. It would be decades of bloody struggle before Black women secured theirs. A similar fate befell Native American women, who were embraced early on by suffragettes enthralled by their matriarchal societies, only to be forced to advocate alone after the victory was in sight. The stories of hundreds of powerful BIPOC voting rights and equity advocates have been scrubbed from history, a legacy of inclusive leadership that would have served us well over the 20th century. 

And yet here we are, lifted up by the first Black First Lady at a time of tremendous pain, on the eve of an anniversary that excluded her from the very system she worked so hard to transform. A message mirrored, as always, by Black women activists, organizers and advocates who are asking us to believe in our ability to finish the work. Obama’s answer, spelled out in a now best-selling charm necklace was: V-O-T-E.*

Yes. And as we all know, the call is more complicated than it seems.

In the middle of a pandemic, a gerrymanderingvoter suppression and now a postal service crisis, it’s clear that the vote must be re-won for many Americans. 

Inextricably linked with the right to vote must be the responsibility to ensure that anyone who is eligible should be allowed to cast their ballots safely, securely, and without fear. This country made an ugly mistake a century ago. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind this time. 

Ellen McGirt

*The “vote” necklace was created by BYCHARI, a Los Angeles-based, sustainable jewelry design line founded by Jamaican-born designer Chari Cuthbert. Yes, Michelle Obama thinks of everything.  

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