This Election Day, Americans Cannot Afford to Take a Seat

Voters fill out their ballots at the Hamilton County Board of Elections as early voting begins statewide, Wednesday, October 12, 2016, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

On November 8, millions of Americans will head to the polls to vote for their elected representatives at the local, state, and national levels. While the stakes are high for everyone, they are particularly high for those voters whose rights have historically been denied or scrutinized. Indeed, many communities of color remain blocked from the polls by voter suppression laws and insufficient language assistance.

Over the past year, hate speech in public discourse has increased exponentially as engagement on social media outlets has grown and hate groups have found a platform for their hateful rhetoric. This has affected many groups, including African Americans; Latinos; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, people; people with disabilities, Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim; and women. Such vitriolic language presents a real threat. Some comments, for example, have fueled an increase in hate crimes against the Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian communities, while others have normalized workplace discrimination on the basis of gender, as well as sexual assault against women. Voters should be mindful of the dangerous effects of this language and its implications for policies that will affect the country’s future.

Hate crimes

On September 25, Maan Singh Khalsa was driving home from work in Richmond, California, with his window open when three men attacked him while he was waiting at a stoplight. They got out of their truck and knocked Khalsa’s Sikh turban off his head, hit his face repeatedly, cut his hair with a knife, and shouted epithets. One month later, students attacked Abdul Usmani, a 7-year-old Muslim child, on his way to school in Cary, North Carolina. They pulled his arms back while others punched and kicked him, leaving him with a broken arm and other serious injuries. Concerned for their safety, Usmani and his family left for Pakistan. These attacks do not reflect the American ideals of inclusiveness and diversity, and they alienate and harm the Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian communities.

As anti-Muslim fearmongering rhetoric has stoked fear and hate, religious profiling and hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim have increased. Muslim Americans going about their days have been targeted and marginalized in places ranging from airplanes to shopping centers. In a one-month period—from November to December 2015—38 anti-Islamic attacks were reported against Muslim and Sikh Americans across the United States. This is an alarming increase from the monthly average of 12.6 hate crimes in recent years, demonstrating concrete consequences of divisive political rhetoric.

In a post-9/11 world, Muslim and Sikh Americans are grappling with the same security concerns that all Americans have, as well as the fear that they will be targeted unfairly based on their appearance or religion. It is especially important that individuals and communities vote to elect representatives committed to ending ignorance and hatred. If voters stay home this November, they will lose the chance to make critical change.

Gender equality

Reports of sexual assault increased by nearly 200 percent in 2015, illuminating the fact that many women experience the threat of sexual assault in their daily lives. Indeed, language has helped normalize this horrifying behavior, a consequence that has been triggering for many victims. As a national conversation on this issue grows, it is clear this problem is not helped by women’s continuing lack of political representation.

Women make up 51 percent of the population but only 34 percent of federal judges, 24.6 percent of state legislators, 24.4 percent of statewide elective executives, 19.4 percent of congressional members, and 18.8 percent of mayors. This has real implications for policies that support women.

The typical woman working full time, year round earns 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, and the disparity is even more striking for many women of color. Women continue to be denied paid family leave and denied access to abortion providers. And they are still judged by how they look, how often they smile, and how they dress, instead of by their intellect and skills. In fact, some research suggests there is a bias in earning potential for women who wear makeup.

The candidates elected in November will have the power to either prioritize gender equality or reverse the gains won through decades of tireless advocacy. It is imperative that voters consider every candidate’s record on women’s issues and their proposed policies to improve women’s lives.

Women, Muslims, and those perceived to be Muslim can use their votes to stand up for their communities. But no American can afford to take a seat in this election. People of color will represent the majority of the U.S. population by 2044, and every voter needs to speak up for the country’s future.

Anisha Singh is the Campaign Manager for the Legal Progress team at the Center for American Progress.

The author would like to thank Legal Progress interns Mannirmal Kaur Jawa and Raman Kaur for their research contributions to this column.