by Ardo Hersi
I began this article with the intention to learn more about voter suppression in the state of Washington. Why, you ask? The answer is this: I had no faith in our system. The election is rigged, it does not matter how many of us vote, the decision is made for us through the Electoral College — or so I thought. I am a firm believer in Audre Lorde’s quote: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” So I never registered to vote or paid attention to politics.
In the pursuit of proving voting is unproductive, my eyes were opened to the necessity of voting. I began my research with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which declares states cannot make laws that infringe on people’s rights to vote. That doesn’t stop many states from doing just that. Gerrymandering, closing voting booths early, or having a limited number of polling places in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods are just a few of the tactics used to limit our voices. In some states, like Georgia, citizens are experiencing 11-hour-long lines to vote. Did you know that wearing a pin showing your support for one political party, or even taking a selfie, can get your ballot rejected? I didn’t, either.
To learn more, I interviewed Hamdi Mohamed, who is currently volunteering with the Biden/Harris campaign as their South King County organizing director. Mohamed has been working and living in South King County for the last two decades and has served immigrants, refugees, and communities of color who come from diverse cultures, religions, and linguistic backgrounds.
Talking with Mohamed made me realize that local elections impact our communities in a very real way. “All politics is local, to me,” she says. “Presidential elections can overshadow state and local elections. While the presidential election is important, many of the policies that impact our daily physical, social, and economic well-being are decided in local elections that occur every year. There are such important ballot initiatives right now. So, it’s important that you’re completing your whole ballot.”
For example, voting yes to Charter Amendment 6 would allow the King County Council to make effective changes for public health and policing. The amendment would allow the County Council to change priorities for the King County Sheriff’s Office, including sending mental health response teams to situations that require mental health experts rather than police officers, who are not trained or equipped to handle mental health crises. This would not only reduce incidents where police might use force but also alleviate some of the pressure on police officers, and it could create new jobs, as well.
Washingtonians are privileged that we won’t be purged from voting rolls for not voting in the previous election. Voting in our state is easy: you can drop off your ballot at many locations such as your local library or you can vote by mail. Mohamed credits this to the work of activists and elected officials.
Washington State has had voting by mail and drop boxes for a decade now — something many states are trying to figure out during the pandemic. To make sure there is no voter fraud (which is extremely rare), there are measures in place to protect the sanctity of voting. One such measure is checking signatures: the signature on your ballot must match the signature on your ID.
Mohamed informed me that a number of ballots in SeaTac were rejected during a 2019 campaign she worked on. Many were from voters of immigrant backgrounds and/or East African descent. This was due to the fact that sometimes the signatures didn’t match. If English isn’t your first language, it can be a lot more difficult to know that your signature has to be consistent, so the signature ID issue ends up disproportionately working against immigrant communities. When asked if this is a form of voter suppression, Mohamed responded, “For us (the state of Washington) that is voter education. It’s a learning curve. I do think it’s the responsibility of the government to make sure they are sending out information in languages that make sure that community members understand how they can cast their vote.”
Once your vote is cast, Hamdi Mohamed details how you can make sure it’s counted: “When you receive your ballot, there’s a ticket up at the top that has a number on it … you can go to the King County election site and track the ballot … you’ll be able to enter your code that’s on that ticket. It’ll tell you exactly where and what stage your ballot is in. You will see the county elections office has received your ballot and your signature was checked with the system and approved. That’s how you make sure your ballot gets counted.”
Although Washington has made voting relatively easy for many of us, the system can still be improved. Mohamed wants to see automatic voter registration so that when someone turns 18 they are automatically registered, like in many other countries. She also believes people serving sentences in jail or prison should have the right to vote, since incarcerated people are still impacted by local and national elections. This would make voting more accessible and just.
If voting really was not important, why would certain politicians work to make it more difficult and to discourage certain communities from exercising our constitutional rights? Something I have come to recognize is that a lot of people are counting on us not to vote. The answer, I am realizing, is because our voices are powerful in the voting booths. I have registered to vote for the first time in my life this year. I researched the amendments and proposals on the ballot and dropped my ballot in the mailbox. It’s conversations like the one I had with Hamdi Mohamed that really shifted my perspective on voting as a tool we can use to organize. Now I have the necessary knowledge to make sure my ballot will count!
Ardo Hersi is an organizer, writer, educator, and advocate for youth. She is from South King County and in her spare time enjoys music and creating art.
Featured image: Graciela Nuñez Pargas.