Rev. Al Sharpton's Weekly Blog

What’s Missing From the Debate Stage? Voting Rights and Criminal Justice Reform Specifics

Oct 19, 2015

In the middle of the night last week in Durban, South Africa, I sat and watched the Democratic Presidential Debate. While I was invited to speak in that great city across the world, I made sure that I remained connected to what was happening here back home. Though I was happy to see front runners Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton mention criminal justice reform so that organizations like National Action Network can continue to fight on behalf of people like Eric Garner and others, I was taken aback by the fact that there were no real specifics on what they would do in terms of police reform and mass incarceration. Equally surprising, there was no discussion about voting rights and current schemes to undermine votes, especially in our community. When Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately impacted by these issues, they simply cannot be ignored on the national stage. Policing, mass incarceration and voting rights are three areas that any candidate running for office must address -- and they must do so with concrete specifics.

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency recently announced that it was closing 31 of the state's DMV offices, greatly inhibiting the ability of Alabamans to obtain a driver's license or other form of ID now required to vote in that state. And it should come as no surprise that eight of the 10 counties with the highest proportion of minority voters is where these offices will close. According to published reports, at least half a million Alabamans, or 20% of registered voters, lack the newly required form of ID. In a state where the fight to gain the right to vote has such historical context and where we witnessed things like the Selma to Montgomery march decades earlier, it is outrageous that such a blatant attempt to suppress our vote is happening once again. Far too many fought, sacrificed and even died so that we could participate in the process of electing our leaders, and we are not going to sit back and stay silent as those rights are being trampled upon in 2015.

Modern-day voter suppression isn't confined to Alabama alone. For the past several years, dozens of states have adopted tough new voter ID laws that severely inhibit the poor, people of color, the elderly, those in rural communities and others from voting. We may not be getting hosed or beaten on our way to the ballot box, but these under-handed tactics are just as detrimental to our ability to cast a vote. And the fact that no candidate has mentioned this major issue is simply inexcusable. National Action Network and I will be embarking on a winter tour to highlight the closing of DMVs and the catastrophic impact it has on our ability to vote. If the discussion of voting rights is not in these Presidential debates, well then we need to put it there by mass mobilization.

When candidates like Sanders and Clinton mention high incarceration rates and the need for reform, there is great applause. While I applaud that as well, I cannot ignore the fact that specific details about changing the way in which communities of color are policed is not discussed enough. What are we going to do from the top down to improve police-community relations, and to hold bad officers accountable? What does the next President plan to do along with the Attorney General? How can we implement sustainable change so that we do not witness more tragic deaths of innocents at the hands of those hired to protect them? And what are we going to do to actually change a system that locks up far too many non-violent offenders, and unequally targets Black and Brown communities when crime is committed across the board? We need these questions answered, and we need to know what these candidates have planned to truly address these issues and more.

Twenty-one years ago I was in South Africa when people literally lined up for miles to vote. In fact, if you look at the struggle for freedom in that remarkable nation, they modeled much of their movement after the civil rights struggle here in the United States. It is a travesty that in this day and age those same voting rights are being suppressed once again, and no Presidential candidate is even mentioning it. As potential nominees on both sides gear up for more debates, let them keep in mind that if they want our vote, they must address voter suppression, police reform and specifics about criminal justice reform.

We have come a long way in the fight for equality, and we are not about to reverse the progress we have achieved together. Anyone wishing to represent us in the highest office in the land must respect that notion and give us details on their solutions to these challenges. We will be listening.