Hill, I love you brother, but why should I vote? It doesn’t matter … my vote doesn’t matter at all. This refrain or some version of it is something I’m hearing far too often as I travel the country doing voter protection work. And nothing could be further from the truth.
Nearly every day we are confronted with stark evidence of racial discrimination and inequity in our criminal justice system. From police violence to mass incarceration, decades of “so-called” tough-on-crime policies have devastated our communities. But a pivotal moment in our long march to equality seems to have finally arrived.
Activists and grassroots organizations have taken to the streets to call for reform. Ordinary people are boldly using smartphones to document and record—forcing the American public to acknowledge and respond to the tragic deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and too many others to name.
As we approach the end of President Barack Obama’s historic eight years in the White House, we must think about the future of our communities.
Who will occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. come Jan. 20, 2017? And will that individual continue to place a priority on criminal justice reform? Will those we elect at the national level inspire and incentivize local leaders to transform the way police interact with our citizens?
The answer to those questions depends on whether we vote. Simply put, voting is the most powerful collective tool we can use to achieve criminal justice reform. We must ensure our next president will be someone who puts racial and social justice at the forefront of the national agenda. Voting can guarantee that our elected representatives in Congress are people devoted to repealing the harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have kept so many African-Americans behind bars.
Virtually every key role within our criminal justice system is tied to an elected office, and races at the state and local levels have the potential to transform the way we are policed. In cities across the country, mayors guide criminal justice policy and often appoint police chiefs. District attorneys have the power to decide whether to hold officers accountable when they use deadly or excessive force without basis. Elected sheriffs run and operate local jails.
There are also problems with our court system. Too often, low-income African-Americans represented by overworked public defenders are pressured to take plea agreements to avoid trials. They are also prosecuted and issued long sentences for low-level nonviolent offenses. The reality is more than 90 percent of state judges are elected and must be held accountable by the voters who put them on the bench. State lawmakers have the power to repeal laws that disproportionately punish minority communities. If we register in high numbers and turn out on Election Day, the political calculus can change.
Election Day also presents an opportunity to address the school-to-prison pipeline. We can use our votes to hold school board members accountable when they allow underperforming schools to disproportionately expel students of color or entangle them in the criminal justice system for conduct that used to only land you in the principal’s office.
This November, we must hold our elected officials accountable and ensure they take policy positions that promote justice. When voter turnout is low and there’s insufficient attention paid to all races on the ballot, bad actors are able to maintain their grip on power over us.
I was shocked to learn that historically, 85 percent of district attorneys across our country ran unopposed. When we flex our power at the ballot box, we demonstrate we can’t be taken for granted. Just look at what we did in Chicago this year: A Chicago police officer fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014. He and other officers on the scene allegedly lied and falsified reports to cover their tracks while the city’s chief prosecutor, Anita Alvarez, appeared to turn a blind eye. For nearly seven years, Chicago residents suffered under her crime policies, which ignored the victims and left the Black community spiraling in a cycle of neglect and punishment. On the strength of Black voters, Alvarez was replaced on the Democratic ticket by Kim Foxx, a forward-thinking prosecutor from their community.
No matter how many hashtags, posts or snaps are shared, we cannot declare this a renewed era of civil rights activism if we do not exercise the most powerful weapon in our arsenal, the right to vote. All we have worked for will wither if we do not vote. Social media campaigns will be reduced to simply being 140 characters, each viral video will have just been for views, and each lost life will be just that: lost.
I am optimistic about the future of our great nation. Hope and change won nearly eight years ago. Now, we have the opportunity to put in place leadership that will be responsive to mass incarceration and help strengthen our criminal justice system. It’s time to collectively use our votes in the fight for justice.
If you don’t see people who represent your interests, then you run for office. Our political system works best when it’s represented for the people, by the people. WE are the people!
Hill Harper is an award-winning actor, bestselling author and national spokesman for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.