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On tearing down the ballot wall

“For the 1st time ever … I VOTED!”

A message sent to my family group chat on November 3, 2020 at 7:12 a.m. My mother had just left her regular 12-hour graveyard shift at the police dispatch. While most people would be hauling it to sleep after clocking out, she was among the first in line to cast her ballot at the church around the corner that morning. And not just any ballot. Her first ballot. 

2020 marked a milestone for my family: the first election in which every voting-age member of our household could vote. After more than 20 years of fighting through our deeply broken immigration system — and, in turn, being sidelined from a series of critical elections — that year, my mother, a Colombian immigrant, became a United States citizen and, then, a registered voter. And, that November, our family’s deep love for this country was fulfilled in a new and powerful way. We went to the polls that year. And, with us, we brought our joy.

Three months later, on Jan. 6, a violent mob of traitorous insurrectionists threatened to take all of that away. And, once again, we were reminded of that “one step forward, two steps back” reality of progress in our country, unrelentingly experienced by the communities we come from.

Since 2000, Latinos have represented one of the “largest contributors to the electorate’s rise,” according to Pew Research. In turn, our participation has also been pronounced. In 2020, 16.6 million Latino voters turned out to vote — representing the “largest racial or ethnic minority” turnout in 2020, per Pew. (My mother, at long last, among them). And, as the US Latino population continues to grow, this trend can be expected to continue.

These numbers carry a glimmer of optimism for our community’s representation in our great American experiment. But they must also prompt us to speak truth about the barriers that we, and other underrepresented groups, face to exercising our right to vote.

I find no small coincidence that chants of “stop the steal” and “build the wall” follow a harrowingly synergistic cadence.

Voter suppression is born of a politics of ‘walling,’ in which participatory rights inherent to citizenship have been diluted, nullified and even outright denied to historically underrepresented and marginalized communities. This is a construction project that has played out across decades of our country’s battle with racism and segregation. It is a blueprint laid out before the nation on Jan. 6. And it is a terrifying reality for our communities.

The architects of the ballot wall have designed it in the style of widespread distrust, sown in our democratic processes and insidiously directed at the participation of communities of color. We’ve seen this, for example, in the barrage of lawsuits that followed the 2020 election, in which legal scholar Atiba R. Ellis uncovered a common thread: “the litigation […] focused principally not on the practices of a particular state, but on the practices in cities or counties that were principally urban or otherwise contained a significant presence of people of color.” Under the guise of uncovering voter fraud, this legal campaign represented a tactile assault on the ballots of thousands of Black and Brown voters — an attempt to wield the law as a means of demarcating a ‘them’ versus an ‘us.’

Though the former president’s legal team was widely unsuccessful in court, a ballot wall of their design is nevertheless under construction, as we speak.

One year after the election, 19 states successfully passed laws restricting voting rights, per research from the Brennan Center for Justice. Four hundred and forty laws, nationwide, were proposed. Thirty four were codified. And as we rang in 2022, more than 250 restrictive bills were introduced across various statehouses, with provisions including voter purges, poll closings, restrictive ID requirements, non-independent surveillance over ballot integrity and the creation of so-called ‘voter fraud police’ forces. These laws are anticipated to impact Black and Latino voters, particularly, by disparately augmenting their cost of voting. 

Brick by brick, law by law, the ballot wall is being fortified all around us — threatening to suppress and silence the voices of millions, nationwide. Its expedited construction process offers a grim outlook for the future of our democracy. And, for our communities, it tells the story of a future where our rights to participate fall further from our grasp.

While this truth we face is bleak, we must hold fast to hope. 

As Latino Heritage Month concludes less than one month before the November midterms, may our annual, month-long celebration serve as a reminder of both the growing contributions of Latinos to our democracy and the inherent strength that each of us has to affect change and transform our communities.

May it be a time when we come together to take part in reducing the costs of voting for our querida familia, friends and neighbors by registering them to vote and helping them make a plan to turn out in November.

May it be a season of acknowledging that the fight for our democracy is far from over, and that our elected officials must be held accountable to pass transformative federal reform — including the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — which will help bring the ballot wall’s construction to a halt.

And may it be a rallying cry for us to turn out as we’ve never turned out before, to reject a politics of walls and exclusion and embrace a democracy that advances fierce inclusion and equality for all. 

Let’s flood the polls this November with our voices and our votes, and make it clear that this democracy belongs to all of us — it’s our vote, nuestro voto, nosso voto, vòt nou. We will not, and cannot, stop fighting until every member of our community has the equal and unequivocal right to bring their strength, pride and joy to the voting booth. And this election — mere weeks after Latino Heritage Month — may we embody the power that every single one of us has to directly confront and tear down the walls we face.

Nicholas Crookston (’23) is a student of political science and global affairs, with a minor in Latino studies and a concentration in the Klau Institute for Civil & Human Rights. He is a member of ND’s Write to Vote chapter. 

W2V is the Notre Dame chapter of the national Write to Vote Project, a non-partisan, pro-democracy initiative. Its goal is to support democracy, encourage civic engagement and advance voting rights in the U.S. and around the world. You can contact NDW2V at ndw2v@nd.edu.

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