The COVID-19 pandemic and the uprisings against policing and in defense of Black lives are exposing injustices that have existed in our society for centuries. Underrepresented, disenfranchised, and oppressed people continue to be harmed the most.

The virus and police are devastating Black and Indigenous communities at disproportionate rates. Oppressed people need to be able to have a say in our democracy if we want a better world. Despite the pandemic and ongoing violence, the fight for political power for Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color (BIPOC) is growing in intensity  and many are pushing for our right to a healthy democracy.

Organizers and advocates involved with civic engagement must take a holistic approach to voting and to social justice. Voting is a tool in a larger toolbox for social change. Electoral justice isn’t just about casting a ballot; it’s about how we can use elections as a tactic to set ourselves up for a truly liberated future. That’s what we believe at State Voices.

State Voices is a network of coalitions, advocates, and organizers fighting for BIPOC political power and a healthy democracy. Our network of 23 nonpartisan state coalitions, called “state tables,” works with over 800 grassroots organizations to break down barriers to civic participation and invest in BIPOC leadership and organizing. State tables and their partners believe in the power of integrated civic engagement where we push for electoral justice in addition to doing issue-based organizing and other movement work.

This includes doing voter registration, voter education, and GOTV, pushing for an accurate census count, fighting for police divestment, and some partners in states like George, Nevada, and Michigan, providing mutual aid to their communities.

In Louisiana, the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice and their partner the YWCA of Baton Rouge spent Juneteenth bailing Black people out of jail. Minnesota Voices has been supporting partners like Black Visions Collective in their efforts to defund the police. In Wisconsin, transformative work is being done with the Liberate MKE campaign, a movement to divest from police and invest in the community in Milwaukee from the African American Civic Engagement Roundtable.

“Voting is just one tactic that will get us free,” says Devin Anderson, the lead organizer with Liberate MKE. “We know in order to achieve Black liberation, we have to vote to ensure those in office will support our issues and put them squarely on the table.”

Integrated civic engagement takes into account myriad issues our communities face and the activities required to fight for political power. It’s hard to participate in elections when you’re worried about everyday survival like having a roof over your head or being able to afford dinner. It’s hard to participate in elections when the process has been set up to marginalize you. And it’s hard to participate in elections when you’re rightfully disillusioned with the system. We can’t blame someone for not wanting to engage in a system that has harmed them. We need to listen to their needs and make sure we address them in order to construct a new, healthier democracy.

As asked by Emily Zamora, the executive director of Silver State Voices, our state table in Nevada: “How do we have a conversation with people about voting when people are fighting to get food on their table?” If we want a healthy democracy, we must shift people’s material conditions. We must envision a world where we all have our needs met and work backward from there.

Electoral justice is about more than having a favorite candidate. It’s a method by which we can position ourselves for liberation in the years to come. Judges, mayors, governors, council members, and other legislators play significant roles when it comes to the resources we get, the resources that are withheld from us, and in the violent criminalization we face. When we leverage our collective power, we can force them to be responsive to our needs or we’ll vote them out of office. We can move the barometer bit by bit.

A liberated future is one in which we can freely advocate for ourselves and our communities and live in our full dignity. Electoral justice and integrated civic engagement are a couple of strategies we have in our arsenal to help get there.

Alexis Anderson-Reed is the chief executive officer of State Voices. She has been an activist since she was a college student. Driven by the disparities in educational opportunity she encountered growing up in Wisconsin, she co-founded Youth Reclaiming Our Communities (Youth ROC), mobilizing students across the state to press for education finance reform. She has dedicated her career to community organizing, coalition-building, public policy, and strategic planning, exemplified by her work on issues of racial and gender equity and the politics of power and privilege.