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African American Michigan: Rock the Vote, suppressing Black votes

Editor’s note: This story is the eighth in a series looking at racial disparity in Michigan.

In 1992, hip-hop culture was sweeping through America’s metro locations and listened to by many African American youths. What Black youths were not getting was proper education about voting.

According to the official Rock the Vote website, “in 1990, music executives founded Rock the Vote in response to the censorship of hip-hop and rap artists.” They explained, “Our first partnership, with MTV (Music Television), promoted the message that ‘Censorship is Un-American’ and activated millions of young people across the country to exercise their rights and represent their interests.”

For 30 years, Rock the Vote has continuously “adapted to the changing landscapes of media, technology and culture to breakthrough and empower each new generation.” Through various outlets, Rock the Vote has made it their mission to education America’s youth on voting.

Rock the Vote currently has 1100 tech partners and 12 million registered members. Their website continues information such as how to vote, how to get involved, programs and resources, and a donation fund.

“We are drawing on our decades of experience to deploy the most effective and impactful messages, tactics, and technology to uplift and empower the largest, most diverse generation in U.S. history,” Rock the Vote stated. “We do this while also pioneering innovative ways to make democratic participation more accessible and defending young people’s right to vote.”

In 2016, they boasted an 81% voter turnout, with 60% of that being first time voters of their 7 million visitors and 3.5 million subscribers.

Rock the Vote argued that in 2020, “Intensified efforts to remove polling sites from college campuses, young people must navigate obstacles designed to keep them from making their voices heard.”

Maxine Burkett, a professor at the University of California – Berkley wrote “Strategic Voting and African-Americans: True Vote, True Representation, True Power for the Black Community” for the Michigan Journal of Race and Law in 2003.

Burkett explained that her father told her, “Black people in America would never get anywhere politically, he reasoned, if their loyalties remained in one camp.”

Her father continued, “The sure way for both parties to ignore our interests would be for us to remain wholly uncontroversial.”

“In other words,” Burkett said, “Black people can get what we want only if we present ourselves as true and shrewd consumers in the political market.”

Burkett said shrewd political consumerism will lead to both parties courting for the Black vote, and that “would determine who is addressing our issues most vigilantly.” Burkett’s father’s entire argument was that the most lucrative position for Blacks is to be swing voters.

“Being swing voters would not really mean that we were without conviction or that we were not making an intelligent choice, it would mean that we were making the cleverest move,” Burkett said.

Burkett argues that though the Democratic Party has done arguably little for Blacks, they have been getting the majority of Black votes since the 1960s.

“Indeed, Blacks have endured a series of insults from a Party that has continually taken political communities of-color for granted,” she said.

Democrats court Black votes, but have failed to make sweeping changes.

In “Documenting Discrimination in Voting: Judicial Findings Under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act Since 1982” in the University of Michigan Law School Scholarship Repository, Ellen D. Katz et al discussed the importance of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965.

“It targeted the massive disenfranchisement of African-American citizens in numerous Southern states,” they said. “The VRA eliminated the use of literacy tests and other ‘devices’ that Southern jurisdictions had long employed to prevent Blacks from registering and voting.”

This would also devalue African Americans in Detroit, whose schools and education quality was in decline due to forces previously discussed.

In 2005, the University of Michigan Law School created the Voting Rights Initiative with the purpose of “informing both the debates that led to this latest congressional reauthorization and the legal challenge to it that is certain to follow.”

One goal of the VRA is to “contribute to a critical understanding of current opportunities for effective political participation on the part of minorities the Voting Right Act seeks to protect,” a goal Rock the Vote shares as well.

The VRA was enacted to further support the 15th Amendment which gave people of color the right to vote, by further removing obstacles some states had put up.

In April of this year, the Michigan Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights submitted the Voting Rights and Access in Michigan Report. The report found Michigan, particularly neighborhoods with high PoC (people of color) populations have legislative maps “representing a political gerrymander of historical proportions, the effects of such redistricting will linger until an independent commission reshapes the redistricting maps in 2022.” Gerrymandering is the political manipulation of voting boundaries.

The report also highlighted obstacles for Michiganders voting after release from prison or jail, such as not knowing they can vote, or having a particularly hard time obtaining a photo ID required for them to vote, and “low literacy that may prevent them from participating in elections.”

The voting report also showed that voter registration rates in Michigan reflect racial disparities. 76% of white Michiganders are registered to vote, while only 67% of Black Michiganders are registered to vote.

Michigan voters are required to have a photo ID or fill out and sign an affidavit of identity.

“Non-white, younger, and older voters are substantially more likely than white voters to lack appropriate photo ID when they seek to vote, so members of those demographics are likely to end up having to use the affidavit process,” the study found.

Poll workers were found to often refuse affidavits to would-be voters without proper ID.

According to Rewire News, Obtaining photo ID can be hard in poverty-stricken metro areas due to economic limitations, transportation issues, and possibly lacking the proper documentation to receive one, and replacing that documentation such a birth certificate can be a terrible hassle and costly.

The affidavit process tends to slow down voting speeds and cause long lines, further deterring voters in densely populated voting districts. Further, some voters are not informed of the availability of affidavits.

Voting for Blacks and PoC has been a hurdle in the U.S., including Michigan. Much has been done to try to make it a fairer process such as Rock the Vote and the VRA, but there are still hurdles and voting suppression in the way.

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