THE BLOG

Another Cantor Lesson

06/13/2014 07:28 pm ET | Updated Aug 13, 2014
Mark Wilson via Getty Images

While the autopsy of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's election continues, the sideshow discussion of redistricting has taken up some commentary time. The redrawing of his district to reflect the conservative values he espoused had been designed to guarantee longevity. Of course, his opponent would offer the caution of best laid plans and all that. When a newly homogenized district is coupled with remarkably low voter turnout, we should all begin to fret.

Beyond the shudder this unexpected loss as sent through the political classes, the issue of redistricting's legacy bears continued discussion. In states like Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and elsewhere across the South, changing demographics should alert us all to the need to stare more closely at how these lines are drawn -- and what a narrow sliver of voters can do to alter history. The shifting composition of our electorate is more than simply a point of partisan debate. It is a clarion call for us to think about the muted voices that need to be heard.

In Georgia, during the previous decade between Census counts, more than 1.5 million new neighbors set up homes in the state. Of this population, the majority counted themselves as minorities: African-American, Latino and Asian-American. Their children attend public schools and their communities' debate transportation and economic and social policy. Yet, today in Georgia, more than 800,000 citizens of color are eligible, but not registered to vote -- a stunning and unacceptable number.

I grew up in a family that struggled economically, often making difficult choices. However, my parents never compromised about the moral obligation to vote. Indeed, my parents helped to secure that precious civil right as teenagers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in the 1960s and took us to vote with them while we were growing up. We saw them enter the voting booths, waiting for our turn behind the curtain.

However, their lessons were more than civic, they were opportunistic. By engaging in the body politic, they groomed us to expect more by way of our government. We vote because our voices deserve to be heard and because we can and must have an influence on public policy. Whether the question is the minimum wage, climate change, immigration reform, tax policy or the treatment of the incarcerated, those who do not vote are simply the fodder for decision-makers.

As we focus on the 2014 election cycle, the larger obligation of our efforts should be to add as many new voters to the pool as possible -- especially those who have historically been left behind. This will enrich our debate and force our attentions to coming tidal waves of change. In Georgia, 56% of public school children are non-white. But when their parents are also the least likely to vote, the decisions made about their educational futures will be determined by someone else, unlikely to share their experiences.

Metropolitans and micropolitans are finding themselves crowded by diversity. The best policies will not only reflect but celebrate this expanded capacity for engagement. Georgia, pre-2011, had developed a notable number of multi-racial coalitions that cut across party lines and ethnic histories. Redistricting reduced this on a state level, but the tide of demography will make it so once again.

For all the furor over Leader Cantor's loss, there is a critical lesson to be learned. No one should revel in his loss when it comes because only a fraction of our citizens deigned to speak out. Without every vote and every voice made loud, we will be again and again be stunned by the outcome. The work must begin with the most silenced among us -- first with intensive voter registration and then with relentless voter engagement. Anything less is folly.