“Withholding The Vote” isn’t a Strategy. It makes you a Non-Motherfucking Factor.

Your vote is your bargaining chip.

Image of Martin Luther King Jr and his wife, Coretta Scott King, at a ballot box.

I’m not sure how we got here.

A campaign encouraging Black people to either withhold their vote or divest completely from voting has been circulating heavily online. Without research and foresight, leaders of this movement think somehow declaring publicly that they are refusing to vote will give them negotiating power with candidates, mainly Democratic candidates that admittedly have enjoyed loyalty from Black voters regardless of their failure to address the needs of their Black constituents. There’s been resentment festering within the Black community for years now due to decades of unanswered calls for a substantial agenda that addresses issues specifically plaguing the Black community. Now let me be the first to admit, they aren’t wrong. Candidates as a whole, at best, pander to the Black community and leave a trail broken promises on their way out and flat out ignore us at worst. It has been painful trying to find leaders who center their Black constituents' needs for years across the nation at all government levels. While their disappointment and anger are valid, the proposed strategy doesn’t pan out for several reasons.

Many Black voters are now adopting the belief that by withholding votes until “their demands for the Black community are met” is a practice that will yield great results. I’m here to tell you, with love, that shit isn’t going to work because it isn’t how politics work.

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To clarify, this isn’t a partisan argument. I am not here to tell you who to vote for; I am simply making a case for you to utilize your vote to be a part of shaping your community and as a source of power if that is how you are attempting to build power. The strategy doesn’t work no matter where you fall on the political spectrum because all candidates have the same goal: to be elected, and votes calculate all elections. You are directly giving away your most useful bargaining tool, your vote, by removing yourself as a demographic that will show up to the polls.

Elected officials need the most votes to win, obviously. You can be the best person for the job and have an amazing platform, but none of it matters if you can’t get the votes. You need to be elected by the majority of VOTERS. Voter engagement is the bulk of a candidate’s campaign. Reaching voters. Connecting with voters. Inspiring voters. Voters, as in people who vote, not just members of the community, are their focus. Many hours are put into voter research for campaigns. Who votes, how they vote, age, race, gender, renters or homeowners, married, single, parents, childfree. They are aware they can’t speak to every voter personally, so crafting an effective, consistent message is important. They research voters to curate their campaign messaging appropriately to their specific concerns. Hopefully, after a successful election, they know what groups to stay aligned with for ongoing support for re-election or a bid for a higher office. No matter the message, political party, or race, the goal for getting out the vote stays the same: learn and motivate VOTERS.

With the knowledge that voter engagement is a high priority for candidates, if you are announcing that you don’t plan to vote or NEVER vote to begin with, a candidate isn’t going to give a fuck about you. Now that may seem harsh, but if you’re not a voter, as in a person who votes, they honestly can’t afford to pay attention to you. Candidates only have so much time and so much money. Nobody will spend their campaign resources begging for you to vote AND then have to turn around and convince you to vote for them specifically. That is twice the work. Their time is better spent talking to people who they know vote consistently.

In an ideal world, I know a candidate would want to connect with community stakeholders from demographics that represented their entire constituency, especially in local races where personal meetings can be conducted easily. I will always reiterate it isn’t necessarily what the candidate personally wants to do, but a strategy they need to follow to win.

People have it backwards if they think proclaiming they aren’t voting is the way to stir interest in the Black community. As I mentioned above, without the vote, you have no value to them within their campaign. They may care about you in general as a member of their future constituency, but as far as someone who’s support they will attempt to earn for an election? You’re not going to be a priority. If you’re not going to vote and actually get someone into office, they have no interest in connecting with you, let alone centering your needs on a campaign platform.

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I know what you naysayers are thinking: “If I withhold my vote, they’ll be more inclined to WANT to engage with me, to encourage me to vote AND vote for them.” Well, maybe, but that isn’t a guarantee because that’s not how it works realistically. You want to be guaranteed that a candidate will want to connect with you, but no vote means no influence. You may make a statement, but opting out doesn’t mean you will become influential. Black people are not the only demographic voting. And whether you vote or not, the election still takes place, and a winner is still determined. You’re betting on the lack of Black turnout causing devastating effects for one or possibly both parties, and then the losing party pouring interest into the Black community to encourage them to vote. It sounds like it can work, but wouldn’t pan out as promising as it seems.

The winning candidate has been shown they can win without the Black vote and now has no real motivation to gain support from the Black community. Any challenger that may court the Black community and creates a platform that can truly be beneficial for Blacks is now at a disadvantage. If they want to run the next cycle, they are now going up against an incumbent which is far more difficult than running for an open seat. They could attempt to engage Black people who didn’t vote as a way to take the seat, but they may not, because again: time, money, voter engagement. More to the point, they could do all that and still lose because of incumbent privilege, and now you’re back to square one with no leader who wants to be an advocate for the Black community. Now, if the previous race were tight, it would be worth engaging Black non-voters. However, that depends on the population of Black people in your area. Remember what I said about limited time and limited money. If I am not confident I will get you to show up, it makes no sense to invest campaign resources in you. We know for sure that they will spend a lot of time courting swing voters and voters who voted for the incumbent in the previous election who are unhappy with their performance.

In my opinion, a more effective strategy would be to assert yourself as a community stakeholder with influence that is UNDECIDED. Asserting yourself as an independent voter, not dedicated to a specific party, has weight. An undecided group of voters with influence is worth courting in the candidates’ eyes. A candidate knows that an undecided, independent voter is open to hearing more about a candidate’s plan and honest about any programmatic potential flaws. By making your case a well-connected, undecided voter base, you can position the conversation as an invitation for the candidate to work with you on community initiatives that center Black community needs. In exchange, you will not only vote for them; you will encourage other individuals from the organizations you are involved in to vote for them as well. At that point, your value to the candidate has increased tenfold because you’ve not only formed an alliance, you are connecting them to other voters indirectly and keeping them open for the more time-consuming campaign work: debate preparation, endorsement interviews, and fundraising.

We also have to consider many of our Sisters and Brothers residing in areas where Black people are experiencing extreme voter suppression. Voter access can vary from even within the same state. I would encourage you to think about showing up for the people who have had their voting rights stripped away or access to voting severely limited.

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For what it’s worth, I understand the end goal is making sure leaders prioritize Black voters and give to us what we have given to them for so many years: unwavering support, volunteer hours, and funds. I, too, want leaders that will push agendas that address the strategic divestment from the Black community and legislation that right the wrongs of yesteryear that have followed us like a shadow into the present day. I understand, and I see you. What I don’t want us to do is turn into a non-motherfucking factor by not voting and opening the gates for leadership to deprioritize us more than they already do. Use your vote strategically. Yes, make them work for it. Yes, make sure your needs are met before aligning to any candidate regardless of their party but don’t opt-out of the process. Strategize, organize, and use your community power to make a change.

Oakland native, Black womanist, community advocate, commissioner/ board member, Caleb & Cruz’s mom. https://courtneyceceliawelch.me