by Chardonnay Beaver
In 1967, after fighting against Jim Crow segregation and winning many civil rights victories for Black and Brown Americans, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others called for a “revolution of values” in America.
The Poor People’s Campaign marks Dr. King’s philosophical shift from civil rights to human rights — demanding a new consciousness amid the threat of war, poverty, racial discrimination, and white supremacy. This inclusive fusion movement would unite all races through their commonality of struggle, to create solutions that would revolutionize American values.
In June 1968, an assembly of poor impacted communities were to gather in Washington, D.C., for the inaugural Poor People’s Campaign March. However, in April 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and the Poor People’s Campaign was continued under the leadership of Mrs. Coretta Scott King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Fifty years later, in 2018, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival continued Dr. King’s legacy. Now, branches in over 30 U.S. states are active participants in this national call for a moral revival — including Washington.
This is a four-part series about the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival through the lens of the Washington State chapter. This article — the second in the series — shares the stories of two women who seek to restore the value of the ballot, centering the experience of Native American voters residing on tribal lands along Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
Every vote is supposed to be equal in value, but the value of a low-income voter’s ballot is challenged when their electoral process is threatened. According to the electoral report “Waking the Sleeping Giant,” out of the 168 million who cast their ballot in the 2020 general election, 35% were low-income voters. The report was conducted by Shailly Gupta Barnes, policy director for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and was released in October 2021.
In Washington State, Fix Democracy First (FDF) is a mobilizing partner of Washington Poor People’s Campaign (WAPPC), which works to reform democracy through identifying the links between race, class, and voter suppression.
“We focus on voting rights in access, election issues, money and politics, civic, outreach, and education, and it includes everything related to democracy,” Cindy Black, the executive director of FDF, said.
Originally an independent sales representative for art supplies companies, Black says she became a pro-democracy activist after the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, where a 5–4 Supreme Court majority ruled in favor of Citizens United, declaring that corporations or outside groups can spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.
Many were dissatisfied because the ruling has ushered in massive increases in political spending from outside groups, dramatically expanding the already outsized political influence of wealthy donors, corporations, and special interest groups, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.
“There was a group of people here in Washington that wanted to get our state legislator to say we needed a constitutional amendment to reverse that decision, but the state legislator didn’t move forward,” Black said.
Black was empowered to further her activism after observing the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, where hundreds of activists across the U.S. held weekslong sit-ins to protest gaping economic inequality.
“When I heard about the Occupy movement, I go, ‘Oh, somebody’s finally standing up to what’s going on in our country with the money interest and corporate influence.’ That was interesting to me, so I started going to protests,” Black said. “But I felt I wanted to do more.”
After volunteering with organizations, joining the Washington Coalition to Amend the Constitution and earning leadership status, and spearheading two voting ballot initiatives, Black applied for a long-term position at FDF.
“I was way more interested in my volunteer work than I was [in] selling art supplies. … I got that job. I was the campaign director for Initiative 735 back in 2016. And then I stayed on as the executive director,” Black said.
Since Black became executive director, FDF has helped pass several voting rights bills on a local and national scale. Some of those bills include: Access to Democracy bills, Voting Rights Restoration for Formerly Incarcerated Persons, and the Youth Vote Act of 2020.
In 2019, FDF also helped pass SB 5079, the 2019 Native American Voting Rights Act of Washington — which seeks to remove the barriers Native American voters encounter, especially those living on reservations.
April Obi Boling — the WAPPC committee member representing Grays Harbor County, a member of the Quileute Nation, and a social justice activist — talked about the barriers reservation residents endured prior to the bill’s passage, including the requirement for a voter to have a physical address.
“Reservations don’t have physical addresses,” Obi Boling said, “they have P.O. boxes.”
Even when they are able to register to vote, reservation residents face other barriers, such as excessively long drives to the nearest ballot drop boxes, as was the case for residents of the Queets and Hoh tribal reservations on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. In some cases, the choice might be between voting, filling a gas tank, or buying food for their families.
According to Section 5 of the Native American Voting Rights Act of Washington, federally recognized tribes are now granted the option to request county auditors to provide at least one accessible ballot drop box for their reservation. Yet with limited internet access and resources on reservations, tracking voter information through social media and television isn’t reliable, Obi Boling says. According to the Arizona State University American Indian Policy Institute, 18% of tribal reservation residents have no internet access, while 33% rely on smartphones for internet service. Even where broadband is available, the cost can be a barrier to access.
“People that are wanting people to vote need to not forget the people that live on the reservations. See what they have, see what their living situation is,” said Obi Boling. “Yes, it is a drive, but if you really want support from the Native American communities, you need to go to the Native American communities.”
Similarly, the Poor People’s Campaign believes the solutions for change are found in the lived experiences of the oppressed. The history of voting rights in the U.S. poses questions about democracy and what it even means to be a democratic nation.
Cindy Black said, “I don’t believe we’ve truly had democracy yet.”
The threat of voter suppression perpetuates messages that can often leave Native American voters feeling devalued and unheard.
“My voice matters to a certain extent,” Obi Boling said.
The value of the ballot is made evident through efforts to control the vote. For communities like Obi Boling’s, voting is a measure taken to secure the future of younger generations.
“Our biggest thing with the Native community is our younger generations are our future, and they should be aware of people that are running for office and what our future is,” said Obi Boling.
The WAPPC and other Poor People’s Campaign chapters across the country are mobilizing to ensure that eligible low-income voters’ ballots, and voices, are valued beyond measure.
Get involved with Fix Democracy First by visiting its website, subscribing to its email list, or learning more about its programs, such as YO VOTE! (Youth Organizers for Voter Outreach, Teaching and Engagement) and WON (Women in Office Now).
The next article in this four-part series will further explore the stories of Washington Poor People’s Campaign (WAPPC) and its affiliates, in addition to their mobilizing efforts toward midterm elections. Read the first part, Poor People’s Campaign: The Call for a National Moral Revival.
This story was funded in part by a Voter Education Fund grant from King County Elections and the Seattle Foundation.
Chardonnay Beaver is an influential speaker, storyteller, and writer for The Facts Newspaper. Chardonnay partakes in an undergraduate experience at University of Washington. In 2019, she established Words of Wisdom by Char (WOWbyChar): a platform designed to empower individuals in their pursuit of authenticity. To learn more, visit her website.
📸 Featured Image: April Obi Boling poses for a photo while holding a Native American drum, standing beside a totem pole. (Photo courtesy of April Obi Boling)
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