“The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy,” said the late great Senator John Lewis. In keeping with this spirit, with weeks left before an election that may determine the future of American democracy, a group of bipartisan local elected officials, students and voting activists held a voter registration March on National Voter Registration Day.
On September 22, Gena McClendon—director of CSD’s Voter Access and Engagement Initiative—gathered with the group for the John Lewis “Good Trouble” March to the Ballot Box. “Your presence here today tells me that you are a voter advocate who understands the power of the vote,” said McClendon.
She continued, “It is significant because today American finds itself in a battle for the soul of democracy. Because of the critical time in this nation’s history when our democracy is being threatened on so many levels, people may become discouraged. Still, as Nelson Mandela said, ‘it always seems impossible until it’s done.’ We have to get it done.”
Attendees assembled at the Old Courthouse, a national landmark where the pivotal Dred Scott Trial was held, in downtown St. Louis. “The symbolism of beginning the March at the Old Courthouse doesn’t escape us,” said Vicki Washington of the St. Louis Area Voting Initiative.
“We are in the fight for our lives. Since the repeal of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, we’ve faced intensive voter suppression; voter purges; widespread foreign interference; and disinformation targeting black, brown and Indigenous people,” said Washington.
Speakers included City of St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones, activist and senior at Ladue high school Lauryn Donovan, Missouri House State Representative Rasheen Aldridge and Democratic nominee for Missouri’s 1st congressional district Cori Bush, among others.
Jones listed the reasons she was there to get out the vote: “I’m here because my son is a black man in America, and I fear for his safety. I’m here because my mother died from cancer—she had a preexisting condition. I’m here for my retiree father who depends on Social Security and Medicare. And I’m here because this election has more of an impact on our day-to-day lives than any other election in history.”
Donovan gave an impassioned address in which she exhorted people to vote because, “…there are so many aspects of government you, as a voter, have control over… Vote for people who look and think like you… Dismantle the corrupt system from the inside… If you don’t want to vote for yourself do it for younger generations.”
Aldridge emphasized the importance of local elections and connecting with family and friends to inspire voting: “We get very excited to register people to vote but we also need to talk to people who already registered. How do we engage those individuals? How do we talk to our cousins? How do we have those conversations without shaming them but in loving ways to make sure they vote to make their lives just a little bit better? Let’s have those conversations and change their minds.”
Bush, who recently unseated longtime senator William Lacy Clay in the democratic primary, concluded the speaking program with a rousing call to action: “This is our opportunity to course correct… Do something different… Move outside of the little box… Bring something new, and add to it. You are powerful. You are worthy. You are more than enough. You have what it takes. So let’s put it together and make real change through the vote.”
The date of the march was significant not only because of National Voter Registration Day, but also because it landed on the first day voters were able to cast Absentee Ballots in the State of Missouri.
With both the Democratic and Republican Directors for the Board of St. Louis on board with this effort, the bipartisan group coordinated to handle arrangements for voter registration, absentee voting and Census completions at the event. “This march offers an opportunity for leaders from around the region to offer a united message: Your vote matters,” said Jennifer Slavik-Lohman of the St. Louis Area Voter Protection Coalition.
The overarching purpose of the March to the Ballot Box was to focus attention on the “urgency of now,” including the critical need to register as many voters as possible before October 7, the voter registration deadline in Missouri.
Moreover, the march aimed to help voters understand how to apply for and cast absentee or mail-in ballots, collectively mobilize voters to vote on Election Day safely, recruit poll workers in the St. Louis area and to maximize voter participation.