What Comes After Black History Month?

It’s time the U.S. creates a system in which more Black women and men can run for office, win and be appointed to vacant seats and leadership positions.

What Comes After Black History Month? voting rights
Right to left: Shirley Chisholm, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. (Painted by Melanie Humble)

Our month-long celebration of the ancestors has told the story of Black history and illuminated a path forward for all. And now the question is: What steps do we take to live into the future envisioned by elders? 

We walk in the footsteps of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Carol Moseley Braun and Shirley Chisholm to ensure that freedom and representation are available to all. Although the right to vote was first extended to Black men in 1870 and codified for all people regardless of race nearly a century later, African Americans continue to be disenfranchised and underrepresented at every level. The United States faces a representation crisis that requires our urgent attention and action if we are to address the equally urgent calls for housing, climate, health and criminal justice.

When communities of color are not at the table, our needs go unmet. Disparities and discriminatory health approaches to treatment have left Black communities disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 and last in terms of vaccines and effective treatment.

Black men are incarcerated at a higher rate than any other group and often face additional barriers to civic participation after serving their sentence.

Black Americans are underrepresented in the U.S. Congress as national leaders debate criminal justice reform. 

Black women face the greatest risk of eviction during the pandemic—yet Black women are a mere 4.3 percent of state legislators, 1.6 percent of statewide executives, and 6 percent of mayors in the 100 largest U.S. cities who are deciding policy on eviction moratoriums, tenants’ rights, and recovery stimulus. 

Echoing the words of Shirley Chisholm, we must be at the table to affect positive change, and if they don’t give us a seat, we bring a folding chair. Our “folding chair” to address representation is electoral reform: fair representation with ranked-choice voting.

As a country, our actions must be intentional and fix an electoral system that continues to prevent the diversity of our population to be reflected in our elected bodies. Reforms like ranked-choice voting, U.S. House expansion and replacement mandates will create a system in which more Black women and men can run for office, win and be appointed to vacant seats and leadership positions.

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Ranked-Choice Voting

Ranked-choice voting helps increase the diversity of candidates and elected offices. It dials back toxic elements of campaigning that plague our current process.

We should no longer determine who is most viable (or should “wait their turn”) because we fear vote splitting. We should no longer view voting as a zero sum game instead of a process for fully expressing our preferences like we do in everyday life. We should no longer have negative campaigns that tear down people rather than focus on the issues our communities face and the policy solutions we can support. Ranked-choice voting opens up the possibilities for more choice and ensures voters have their voices heard.

Ranked-choice voting is about expressing one’s vote and outcomes that reflect the collective desire of voters. Under ranked-choice voting, the candidate who wins a majority of the vote (50 percent +1) is elected—something not guaranteed under our current system when more than two candidates run. Ensuring a majority system is especially important for “non-traditional” candidates, or those who break the status quo of our current elected officials, and creates a stronger mandate to lead in office.

More jurisdictions and states are embracing this voting reform. Ranked-choice voting is currently used in 21 jurisdictions for local elections, in Maine for statewide and federal elections, and six additional states for overseas and military voters. In November 2020, an additional eight municipalities and the state of Alaska adopted ranked-choice voting.

The difference is real. In July 2020, women of color held 36 percent of city council seats elected using ranked-choice voting. Currently, 31 percent of the 13 mayors elected with ranked-choice voting are people of color and 46 percent are women—compared to 35 percent people of color and 25 percent women mayors in the 100 largest U.S. cities that use our current voting method.

U.S. House Expansion

Changing how we vote alone is not the end-all solution. We must expand representation by making sure the number of elected leaders and districts fosters constituent engagement and fairness. 

Despite the increases in population across the United States, the U.S. House of Representatives has not expanded since 1911. Without increasing the number of representatives and developing new district structures, the ratio of people per representative will continue to balloon resulting in potentially unwieldy district sizes. Our current electoral system also inherently favors and protects incumbents, who are mostly cis, white and male, while challengers to incumbents are often more diverse. 

Based on the projection by RepresentWomen and FairVote, expanding the U.S. House to 593 members and implementing ranked-choice voting with multi-member districts would increase the representation power for people of color—especially African American communities.

In my home state of Maryland, women make up 44 percent of those elected in multi-member districts and people of color are 45 percent; but in the single-member districts, women hold 41 percent of seats and people of color only hold 23 percent of seats. 

Leaders that reflect all of us need to be the rule, not the exception. As President Biden confirms his Cabinet nominees, new secretaries will leave several voids and open seats from the House to governorships. Vice President Kamala Harris was the only Black woman in the U.S. Senate. Executives filling vacancies have an opportunity to correct the representation crisis by filling seats with women—Black women, in particular—to better reflect and advance just policy. 

As we remember and celebrate the countless Black women leaders who helped get us to where we are today, it is just as important to act boldly to build upon their work. The steps we take now to ensure fair representation will light the steps for the next generation of leaders to advance the issues that matter most. 

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Michelle Whittaker is a board member for RepresentWomen. Whittaker currently leads MCW Creative Group and consults on political campaigns in both Maryland and DC.