I Was Arrested For Fighting Voter Suppression. Here’s What I Learned.

In November 2018, I was arrested for standing with protestors at the Georgia State Capitol as we demanded every vote be counted in the gubernatorial election between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp. Voters had been forced to wait in line for hours, and over 340,000 potential voters were purged from the rolls in the run-up to the election by Kemp, who was both the Republican secretary of state and the candidate for governor, running his own election. 
Both Kemp’s incompetence and intentional suppression disproportionately disenfranchised Georgians of color. 
That day, I was charged with obstruction of justice and spent about six hours in jail. I didn't realize this was going to happen when I woke up that morning and got my 3-year-old son ready for daycare. I was told to urinate in a cup and take my dress off so I could be strip-searched — it was dehumanizing. This is never something that I imagined would happen to a sitting senator, and it shouldn’t happen to anyone fighting for their right to vote. 
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I think they thought they were going to silence me by taking me to jail that day, but they only gave me more resolve about the changes that we need.
Since then, Abrams has launched an organization called Fair Fight that challenges unconstitutional voter suppression policies in Georgia, and has launched, along with Care in Action, a historic federal lawsuit against the Georgia Secretary of State and Board of Elections after her election bid was marred by voter suppression. As the deputy director of Care In Action, I am right there with her in the fight against voter suppression. And our fight is one of many happening around the country — the rate at which voters have been purged from the rolls is increasing. In fact, states removed almost 16 million voters from rolls between 2014 and 2016. That's a "33% increase over the period between 2006 and 2008," according to the Brennan Center.
In recent weeks, we have witnessed the newest form of voter suppression: the attempt to dismantle the U.S. Postal Service orchestrated by Donald Trump. The president is spreading lies about this election and about voting by mail to distract from his failures. Let's be extremely clear: We know that voting by mail is safer and the best way to make sure that everyone can vote during this pandemic. Some Republican leaders have refused to mail absentee ballots to all voters. This will disproportionately affect Black communities, who due to systemic racism have been disproportionately sickened, killed, and forced into unemployment by COVID-19. 
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Our primaries have been tainted by voter suppression already. Just this year, I spoke up after inexcusable failures led to hours-long lines to cast a ballot in my state of Georgia, especially in predominantly Black areas. I was forced to stand in line for five hours, on my 10-year wedding anniversary, just to cast my vote because my absentee ballot never arrived. 

I think they thought they were going to silence me by taking me to jail that day, but they only gave me more resolve about the changes that we need.

Modern voter suppression is not the literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and brutal violence that have historically excluded Black people from voting. But make no mistake, it’s violence all the same. What we often see now is the structural prevention of the right to the ballot box through exclusion, underinvestment, misinformation, and incompetence. It’s the refusal to adopt new voting practices and protections that considers the way modern, working people live.
This year, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage — an appropriate commemoration, as Americans once again prepare to vote in one of the most consequential elections in history. Ratified in August of 1920, the 19th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote for women. But not all women. Black women, who pushed for the 19th Amendment even with the knowledge that they might be left behind, knew their battle wouldn’t end that August. It would take four more decades — years that hung heavy with the brutal violence Black communities faced in an era of Jim Crow and the unyielding will of Black people fighting structural racism — before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed and Black women got some semblance of voting rights.
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Almost six decades after that, and a century after white women gathered at the polls for the first time legally, Black women are still fighting for this right. 
Since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, we’ve seen Republicans close polling places in majority Black precincts. We’ve seen rampant voter suppression cause five-hour-long lines and election administration problems. We’ve watched dissenters invalidate the need to make Election Day a national holiday — a simple move that would ensure working families get to the polls. And, as I can tell you from personal experience, we have seen people arrested for trying to make sure every vote is counted. 
Republicans are terrified of what will happen when all of our voices are heard. They know that if everyone can vote, they can’t win. 
They knew it when Care in Action and Fair Fight filed our lawsuit challenging Georgia’s election system. They knew it when Care in Action challenged a status quo that says women of color voters are not worth investing in — we saw those women and gave them the tools and resources needed to protect their right to vote. They knew it when Care in Action endorsed a list composed of women of color in 2018 — increasing the number of women of color serving in the Georgia legislature. And they know it now as the nation rises up, even with the crisis that is COVID-19 and the danger of voting safely by mail facing erosion by dangerous political play.
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We know women of color, especially Black women, are key to winning the White House and the Senate. In 1920, we forged a path forward in the impossible. And in 2020, we’ll do it again.
Black voters — and Black women in particular — will have the opportunity to decide the 2020 election. It is no coincidence that we are also the voters who are being systematically disenfranchised. That’s why we must do more to empower women of color to participate in the political process. 
That’s where you come in. Last week, Care in Action launched our Voter Protection Hub to help voters learn how to identify voter suppression tactics, how to combat them, how to check their registration status, and how to request their mail-in ballot. You can even use the messenger box on our website or direct-message us on Twitter and Facebook to ask questions in real time. 
We know that when voter education is easy to access, voters feel more confident to make decisions about their civic engagement.
Voting shouldn’t be hard. But the system hasn’t always worked for us. At Care in Action, we truly believe that voting is one tool in our toolbox to build systems that put us first. We’re making millions of voter contacts to get our folks prepared for November 3 and beyond. We’re registering tens of thousands of voters in target states. We’re making care the center of our work because we know that when the needs of caregivers, who are disproportionately Black women, women of color, and immigrants, are addressed, we all benefit. And we’re going to win — because when women of color show up, we get it done.
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I am a daughter of the civil rights movement. I am the daughter of those same women in 1920 who never gave up hope in the fight for voting rights. I carry that legacy with me. 
Growing up in Alabama, I remember watching my grandpa pass out slate cards to make sure our neighbors were prepared to cast their ballot. Ensuring everyone has the right to make their voice heard is at the core of who I am. 
I’m not backing down. And neither should you. Let’s get to work.
Nikema Williams is a Georgia State Senator and the Deputy Director of Care in Action.

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