The men and women who risked their lives for the right to vote would never have imagined that 50 years after Bloody Sunday and the historic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that a Black president would be paying homage to their sacrifice.
But it happened March 7, and many of us watched this historic occasion unfold. But I also bet those civil rights warriors would not ever have imagined that, 50 years after their historic struggle, voter apathy would be so widespread in America, especially among people of color.
This apathy was on full display in Chicago's municipal election on February 24. Turnout was dismal. In fact, less than 33 percent of eligible voters even bothered to go to the polls for this major election. Now, we're faced with a runoff election on April 7. Some see this as inconvenience. I see it as an opportunity.
Chicago voters have a chance to do this election over, to become genuinely engaged and demand answers to questions that weren't answered the first go-round, and to get out and vote. Let's not squander it this time.
Voters should demand real solutions and plans of action, not stock answers from stump speeches, debate talking points and campaign rhetoric. For instance, how will each candidate improve our schools, reduce violent crime, create jobs, share economic prosperity and improve public transportation? Voters should be asking how the two candidates really feel about raising property taxes and under which circumstances would they support a tax hike.
How does each man plan to pay the city's bills and employee pensions with the city so deeply in debt? If it comes down to it, is he willing to use taxpayer money to fight a legal battle over where to build the Obama library? And aside from whether or not we should keep red light cameras, how do voters, especially in communities of color, know this technology won't be used to unfairly target motorists in minority communities?
In addition, both should talk about how to improve relations between communities of color and law enforcement and their plans to reduce violence and protect our children.
By the time April 7 rolls around, eligible voters should have done their research, be full of knowledge and ready to cast their vote for the candidate they believe will provide the best leadership. But more importantly, eligible voters need to actually come out and vote -- especially in the Black community, where in the last election, some of the lowest turnout was in communities of color on the South and West Sides.
There is no reason for eligible voters in Illinois not to vote. Unlike states that have passed laws limiting who can vote or to make it harder to vote, Illinois has actually made it easier to vote by extending registration deadlines and making registration available online, through early voting and voting by mail.
Voter apathy is not just a Chicago problem. In fact, it's a national embarrassment. President Obama took time out in his Selma address to eloquently chastise American voters for failing at what he called "the imperative of citizenship."
"If every new voter suppression law was struck down today, we would still have, here in America, one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples," said our president, who went on to extoll the sacrifices made by Alabama residents before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.
"In Selma, registering to vote meant risking your dignity and even your life. What's our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our vote in shaping America's future? Why are we pointing to somebody else when we could take the time to go to the polling places? We give away our power."
From now until April 7, we have the power to push both candidates to give specific answers. After you get the questions you want answered, you must take the final step and cast your ballot. It's your right. It's your civic duty. It's your obligation.
What concerns me is that if so few voters cared enough to vote the first time, then maybe even fewer will care this time around. But when you don't exercise your right to vote, a right that so many people fought and died for you to have, you become a barrier to positive change.
I challenge Chicago's voters to exercise the imperative of citizenship and make the most of this runoff election. Don't give up your power by staying at home April 7.
Andrea L. Zopp is President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.
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