In recent years, down-ballot wins across the country have legalized marijuana, overturned Jim Crow-era election law, and hiked minimum wages. The GOP’s campaign to suppress the Black vote threatens wins like these.
The defeat of Donald Trump followed a summer of uprisings. As his administration emboldened white nationalists and the police brutalization of Black people, our communities organized— mobilizing millions of Black voters for historic turnout.
The issues that really impact Black voters are not often at the top of the ticket. They are at the bottom of the ballot, closest to the grass roots. Even in states like Missouri, controlled by a GOP trifecta — where President Joe Biden lost by 15.4 points— ballot initiatives allow voters to advance progressive policies that will shift material conditions in our communities.
Despite NPR and the New York Times dismissing down-ballot results as disappointing, in 2020, Missouri voters passed a Medicaid expansion measure to increase access to healthcare in one of the most restrictive states in the country. And St. Louis elected Rep. Cori Bush to the House — where she immediately joined the “Squad”— displacing a moderate 20-year incumbent Democrat out of touch with his home district.
A prior major win, the passage of Proposition B in 2018, is annually raising the minimum wage toward $12 by 2023.
These down-ballot wins are the fruits of organizing, and they are not confined to Missouri. In 2020, Florida became the first state to approve a $15 minimum wage via ballot initiative, bypassing the GOP-led state legislature. Like Missouri, Oklahoma passed Medicaid expansion — with a margin of just over 6,000 votes. In California, Proposition 17 restored the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people on parole. In Mississippi, ballot measures passed to legalize medical marijuana and overturn Jim Crow-era election laws.
Inspired by the surprise victories in Mississippi, a coalition led by the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign is pursuing a felon reenfranchisement ballot initiative after lobbying for a legislative fix for a decade. Political engagement in 2020 brought new support for felon reenfranchisement, says Rukia Lumumba, executive director of the Jackson, Miss.-based People’s Advocacy Institute, a coalition partner. “A majority of folks out encouraging others to vote were still unable to vote themselves,” says Lumumba.
Other affiliates of the Movement for Black Lives are also pursuing people-powered ballot initiatives. In Minneapolis, the Black Visions Collective is working toward a ballot proposal to replace “unjust, racist and ineffective policing in Minneapolis with a comprehensive public health approach to safety,” says Miski Noor, Black Visions co-founder.
Even when ballot initiatives pass, the fight may not be over. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced that the state will not implement Medicaid expansion; GOP legislators refused to budget funds. And though Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment against gerrymandering in 2018, a misleadingly worded 2020 ballot measure essentially reversed the win.
In Mississippi, the state Supreme Court struck down the medical marijuana ballot initiative results because, per the state constitution, measures require signatures from five congressional districts — but the state has only had four since 2002. “Nothing really catches us by surprise anymore,” says Danyelle Holmes of the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign. “We’re prepared for curveballs any day.”
The future of citizen-led ballot initiatives in Mississippi now depends on legislative action. The coalition led by the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign is prepared to move swiftly, readying ballot language and a signature-gathering campaign to put felon reenfranchisement on the 2022 ballot. Reenfranchisement could have ripple effects for electoral politics in Mississippi, where approximately 235,150 people, 11% of the state’s voting-age population, can’t vote because of a felony conviction. Among Black Mississippians, the rate is 16%.
Increased Black and brown voting access and turnout disrupts the Right’s agenda to protect the interests of white supremacy — and has been met with rage. The January 6 insurrection on the Capitol, for instance, was a retaliatory display of white nationalism by homegrown terrorists.
Republican lawmakers launched an aggressive campaign after the 2020 election to restrict voting rights in hopes of preventing Black voters from continuing to fuel Democratic wins. As of March, at least 361 bills that obstruct voting have been introduced in 47 states. In Georgia, Republicans passed a sweeping voter suppression law now facing multiple lawsuits. In Texas, the GOP is working to reduce the number of polling places in heavily Black and Democratic areas. Similar laws are being fast-tracked to go into effect as early as November in key battleground states.
Disenfranchisement has long been used to fuel inequality and preserve power for the white and wealthy. The solution remains the same: we must organize to achieve electoral justice.
That fight is about leveraging every tool at our disposal to move us closer to a functioning democracy. In September 2020, the Working Families Party (WFP) and the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project launched a new initiative, The Frontline, to do just that. In addition to down-ballot organizing, the Movement for Black Lives is demanding Congress protect Black voters with the immediate passage of HR1, the For the People Act, which would reduce the harm of state-level voter suppression bills and restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.
As Maurice Mitchell, WFP national director, explains: “Electoral power alone will not get us free. Protests alone are insufficient. We need to vote. We need to protest. We need to organize. We need to study. We need to strike. And then we need to protest again.”
Kayla Reed is a Black, queer organizer and strategist from St. Louis, Missouri. She is co-founder and executive director of Action St. Louis and a lead strategist in the Movement for Black Lives, where she co-founded the Electoral Justice Project.