As she stood at the podium, Gena Gunn McClendon considered the moment. “We’re here to learn. We’re here to teach,” she told those gathered on Saturday, May 8. McClendon, director of the Voter Access and Engagement Initiative with the Center for Social Development in the Brown School at Washington University, leads research to identify voting barriers and remedies, especially in communities of color. The center’s research on voting in the St. Louis region found differences in polling conditions by the race and income of the communities where polls are located, with longer lines in some predominantly Black communities.
“We are here to educate and inform residents in this Black community, and our entire Black community, that they have a fundamental right to vote — and how to fight for it,” she added.
McClendon’s comments on the steps of St. Louis’s Charles M. Sumner High School opened a day of events marking the National John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Day of Action. Organizers gathered simultaneously in over 150 U.S. cities. In Missouri, events were also held in Jefferson City, Cape Girardeau, Springfield, Kansas City.
The gatherings took place as state legislatures throughout the country weigh measures to tighten ballot access. At Sumner High School, other speakers acknowledged the developments.
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said, “I stand here today because of people like John Lewis and the countless others who fought endlessly, knowing in their hearts that they were laying the foundation for people like us to become equal in the eyes of the United States of America.” Jones issued a proclamation declaring May 8 the John Lewis Voting Advancement Action Day in St. Louis. The proclamation, she noted, honors “those who have fought for and those who continue to fight for our right to vote.”
The mayor added, “It’s not just our constitutional right but our duty to continue to fight until our children, our children’s children, and their children can live in a fair, just, and equal society, where everyone is given a vote, rights, and a fair shot to succeed.”
Denise Lieberman said, “Our right to vote is under assault.” Pointing to “over 360 restrictive voting bills pending in 47 states,” she added, “We are here to say … no to voter suppression.” Lieberman, director of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, adjunct professor in the Washington University School of Law, is faculty director of voter access and engagement with the Center for Social Development.
From Sumner, the oldest high school for African American students west of the Mississippi River, participants traveled in a “votercade” through the Ville neighborhood to Tandy Park, where organizers prepared a “Celebration Village” with food, music, activities for children, a voter-registration table and a teach-in. McClendon worked with local election officials to arrange a demonstration of voting equipment and a mock election.
“We wanted to give people a chance to experience the voting process without the crowds or stress of Election Day,” she said. “If voters are familiar with the process and know what to expect, they will be more likely to show up, stay in line, and cast their ballot — even when conditions are less than perfect.”
In a study to be published in the June issue of Social Service Review, McClendon, Kyle Pitzer, and Michael Sherraden showed that insufficient staffing, long lines and other polling conditions have shaped voter turnout in St. Louis.
McClendon acknowledged that it was important that the Celebration Village include activities for children and youth. “Teaching kids about how to vote using an election machine is important,” said McClendon. “Kids will keep the process simple and will always remember the experience of learning about voting.”
The Voter Access and Engagement Initiative at the Center for Social Development, the St. Louis Area Voter Protection Coalition, St. Louis Area Voting Initiative, and the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition led efforts by multiple partners to organize the day’s events in the Gateway City.