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The Presidential Election Won’t Save Us — But This Is Why Your Vote Still Matters

If anything, it’s all the other races, with all the candidates you know nothing about (yet), that will determine how different our future looks

Does anyone really want to vote right now?

So many speeches at so many protests have hammered home the importance of voting Donald Trump out of the presidency in November. But for many young protesters, it feels like filling a bubble in with black ink is the most milquetoast way out of the pain and frustration of Black deaths, police violence and the glaring lack of long-term accountability. 

There is much debate on who’s really responsible for the property damage and vandalism blanketing cable news, yet the energy of burning cop cars and ransacked Louis Vuittons seems to speak to our yearning for a plan beyond just shifting the electorate with votes. Is voting for Joe Biden really going to be the catalyst for justice and reform across the U.S.? (It won’t.) Conversely, will booting Trump to the curb convince, say, racist police chiefs to step down and invite Black and brown activists to advise the departments? (It won’t.) 

No wonder it’s dispiriting, even frustrating, to hear people fixate on making change through a democratic process that has failed in myriad ways for, well, more than two centuries, really. The exhausted takes calling for other, more radical paths are alluring. Nobody wants to keep using the same busted tool to build a house. 

But here’s the twist: Voting isn’t just a singular tool. It’s a whole damn set, with bits and blades that can cut away at the faults. The national election is the flashy prize, sure. But in the most chaotic election year perhaps ever in American history, we cannot forget that the smaller, regional races may be far more critical in shifting a generation of politics on the ground floor. 

Shining the spotlight on policing has once again proved that point. This is a system ruled by elected city attorneys, elected district attorneys, elected judges and elected mayors who pick police chiefs. Oversight of police often falls on elected city council members and civilian boards selected by officials in City Hall. It’s America’s mayors who have been charged with both communicating to a panicky, stressed-out public amid the pandemic and directing resources to help. 

Ironically, despite these local leaders having so much sway on our day-to-day lives, turnout for such elections is stupefyingly low. There are structural reasons for this, but it’s in large part because people pretty much don’t engage with local campaigns.

Then there are the congressional races, which are fertile grounds to bloom the next AOC or Ilhan Omar — young, rising stars who capture progressive America’s attention and inspire a flurry of support and action, especially among young people. Uncoincidentally, Ocasio-Cortez has thrown her time and weight behind campaigns to support candidates in critical races that could flip a district and create better representation for its communities. 

Some have ended up as brutal losses, like that of 26-year-old immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros, who was in a tight South Texas race against centrist incumbent Henry Cuellar. There are no moral victories in politics, but losing to an establishment Democrat with backing from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — by less than four percentage points — is still a worthy achievement. 

These fights will continue to unfold as we near November, and two things are clear: One, these so-called “fringe” candidates, many of them people of color, need the public’s help to get attention and credibility. Two, they would push the agenda on racism and policing justice far more than incumbents if they got a shot at office. 

In a typically eloquent Medium post on Monday, Barack Obama spoke to the need to maintain trust and energy in the electoral process while also noting the importance of direct action on the streets. “Throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobedience that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities,” he wrote. “But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.”

While the big races to fill seats in D.C. capture our attention, Obama stresses that the elected officials closest to our homes play an outsized role. And looking at L.A., I can’t help but agree. Better leaders would have kept COVID testing sites open, to accelerate safety during a time of public protest. Better leaders would have intervened when their police chief blamed George Floyd’s death on protesters. Better leaders would have earned more respect from activists before this all went down. Better leaders would have known a curfew and violent crackdowns are long-term mistakes. I see it in our City Council, which touts one guy under FBI investigation for taking bribes from housing developers, and another guy who has been a lone, loud voice for homeless rights and police brutality instead. 

This is the bedrock that America is built on, for better and worse. For worse, because researching judges and candidates and policies just to take part in a voting process that feels like a lottery where you lose all the time is deeply unsatisfying. Not to mention, there are real existential problems about who votes and how they do it, as well as so much fuckery in long lines and voter ID laws and good ol’ bureaucratic disasters. 

But for better, because pitifully low turnout on local stages means that well-organized movements can have a disproportionate impact on the outcome — that is, as long as their supporters show up.

So vote. If not that vote, then all the other votes. There’s nothing left to lose, and quite a bit left to win.