Kicking off Black History Month on Feb. 1, national and state thought leaders and elected officials convened at the University of St. Thomas to examine the past, present and future of voting rights. The Symposium on Voting Rights, co-hosted by the university’s Racial Justice Initiative and FairVote Minnesota, focused on the evolution of access to the ballot box.
St. Thomas President Rob Vischer encouraged the diverse gathering of attendees to engage in the important work of building a more representative and inclusive future for our state and our country.
“As we come up on another election cycle that promises to be deeply contentious, it is more important than ever to protect the right to vote, to maintain and strengthen the infrastructure of our democracy,” Vischer said. “It is tempting to see the debate over voting rights as simply another dimension of our exhausting partisan divide. Of course, there could be partisan aspects to these debates but a concern over the ability to participate openly and freely in our election should not be a partisan topic.”
With the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act just months away, panelists discussed recent changes to voting rights in Minnesota, including the state’s largest voter-eligibility change in half a century. One of the changes is a law passed in 2023 that allows eligible 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote so that they are automatically in the system when they turn 18.
Gov. Tim Walz, who signed the bill into law, told the more than 400 in-person and online attendees that while Minnesota has been “a beacon of light,” work to improve and protect voter access never ends.
“Every generation is charged with protecting democracy. Every generation is charged with reinvigorating that democracy,” Walz said. “Tackling issues from climate change to education to whatever else it might be, is predicated on the ability of our system to work and for people to feel part of that democracy, to buy into our institutions.”
To better understand the current landscape, attendees participated in a panel conversation surrounding Minnesota’s history. One of the state’s biggest milestones came in 1868, when Minnesota voted to extend the suffrage to Black men. It was a progressive first step that Dr. Yohuru Williams, founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative and professor of history at St. Thomas, said kicked off a long and painful journey.
“The reality for communities of color is the right to vote, unencumbered by violent political chicanery, didn't come until the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Williams said. He added that people must acknowledge the harsh realities of American history to truly make progress in this era.
“The core of our work is anchored in the need for historical recovery and the importance of acknowledging the echoes of the past that reverberate in our contemporary moment,” Williams said.
Panelists also looked to the near future, discussing ways to work together to protect access to the ballot box. One of the biggest issues looming in 2024 is how artificial intelligence could play a role in exacerbating disinformation.
For example, in January, voters in New Hampshire received an audio message that seemed to be from U.S. President Joe Biden. It urged voters not to cast their ballots in the Democratic primary. The problem? The audio was a deepfake, with a voice artificially created to sound like the president.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon told audience members that disinformation, no matter how it arrives, is currently the number one challenge to democracy.
“This is not a new problem. Disinformation is not a new threat,” Simon said. “Instead, AI is simply a new way to supercharge and amplify existing threats.”
Other panelists and speakers at the Symposium included Attorney General Keith Ellison, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and FairVote Minnesota Executive Director Jeanne Massey.
Co-sponsors of the symposium included Macalester College, the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the University of Minnesota Law School, St. Catherine’s University, Augsburg University and the African American Leadership Forum.