Four local voting rights advocates discussed existing suffrage challenges that Michigan citizens still face today at a virtual panel Monday afternoon. The University of Michigan Women and Gender Studies, LSA and the Ford School of Public Policy hosted the event.
State Sen. Stephanie Chang, who is the first Asian American woman elected to the Michigan Legislature and a board member of Rising Voices of Asian American Families, said many Asian Americans face language barriers at the polls. She said absentee voting has significantly helped this community because it allows voters not fluent in English to take their time doing research and translating at home.
“They can get interpretation and then mail it in or drop it off at their convenience, rather than having to — sometimes this is intimidating if you don’t speak English — go to a site and no one there speaks the language that you’re most familiar with,” Chang said. “Absentee is going to be huge, I think, for our Asian American community, and other communities with limited English-proficient voters.”
Dessa Cosma, executive director of Detroit Disability Power and a founding partner of the People with Disabilities Voting Rights Coalition, described her voting challenges during the August 2018 Michigan primary as a citizen with disabilities.
“When I went to vote in my wheelchair, there was nowhere for me to vote,” Cosma said. “I could get in the building, I could get my ballot, I could engage with the poll worker, but when I turned around to look for somewhere to go fill out my ballot, all of the voting booths were standing height which means they were above my head. I turned back to the poll worker and I said, ‘Excuse me, where should I vote?’ and she didn’t have an answer for me.”
After that experience, Cosma said she called other activists with disabilities in the Metro Detroit area. Their experiences with discrimination at the polling stations inspired them to create organizations advocating for disability rights.
“Every one of them had a story about their lack of ability to vote smoothly because of disability,” Cosma said. “A couple of weeks later, the People with Disabilities Voting Rights Coalition was formed.”
Matthew L. M. Fletcher, law professor at Michigan State University and director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center, discussed challenges for Indigenous voters in the state of Michigan. Fletcher said there are about 100,000 Indigenous citizens in the state who are of voting age, but various factors such as historically not being able to vote and primarily living in rural areas suppress Indigenous votes.
Fletcher said some Indigenous people have felt disillusioned with voting due to historic and current betrayals by the government.
“Some of that is a push pressed upon us by our own leadership, but a good chunk of our people resist encouraging Native people to vote in state elections in particular on the ground that the state government has never done anything for us,” Fletcher said. “In fact, the state government is often in opposition to our treaty rights … and (in) opposition to our gaming rights.”
During the pandemic, many people have worried about going to the polls in person. This has led to record numbers of absentee voting. Some worry that fear of COVID-19 at the polls could stop registered voters from voting at all.
The final panelist was Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP. Anthony is also the leader of several voting rights campaigns, including Take Your Souls to the Polls and Promote the Vote. He encouraged viewers to vote, even though the process may be complicated by COVID-19 this year.
“If you really want peace, you’ve got to exercise your piece of the voting process, and make sure you take your souls to the polls and vote,” Anthony said. “We cannot take the chance that our vote doesn’t count because voter suppression is on the rise. This is the most critical election of our time. Take your souls to the polls and vote like your life depends on it because, quite frankly, it does.”
Daily News Contributor Kaitlyn Luckoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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