Shukri Olow was not going to leave anything to chance.
After anxiously waiting for her ballot, when she finally received it on Oct. 17 she didn’t hesitate. “I just had this rush of energy and momentum to turn it in as soon as possible — on the same day … because this energy that I feel now to change the trajectory of our country starts with a vote,” she said.
Olow, 33, is a Kent mom, a Somali refugee and a Black Muslim woman. All those identities fuel her passion for civic engagement, but she is not alone in her enthusiasm for voting early this year.
As of Friday, 52 million people had already voted, and the 2020 early voting totals already well surpassed all of 2016’s early voting, with 12 days left to go to Nov. 3. We won’t know whether this early enthusiasm will result in a larger voter turnout overall, or if people are just determined to get their ballots in before 2020’s next curveball, but either way, with 60% of voters wanting a mail-in option, it seems likely that this pandemic will forever change our election system. We no longer have an “election day”; we have a weekslong “election period.”
I wrote in July about the need to protect voting rights and fears of widespread voter disenfranchisement due to the pandemic, efforts to block or restrict mail-in voting and just the sheer logistical challenge for many states of getting what took Washington state years to implement done in a few months.
Unfortunately, it seems like some of those fears have come to fruition, with numerous court cases to decide voting rules underway around the country at the same time people are trying to vote. Last Monday, the Supreme Court ruled 4-4 that Pennsylvania could allow three extra days for ballots to be received in the mail, which was seen as a victory for voting access, even though it’s just the bare minimum.
In Georgia, early voting lines stretched as long as 10 hours, after the 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act allowed states to cut polling places even as their voter rolls grew. According to a 2017 study by the University of Pennsylvania, voters of color were seven times more likely than white voters to wait more than an hour to vote.
But what I didn’t expect was that voters — like Olow — seem to be taking matters into their own hands and enfranchising themselves in record numbers.
In King County, by Friday morning, nearly 36% of voters had already voted, compared with 13.5% at the same time in 2016. And in Washington, you still have time to register to vote. Today is the deadline to complete your online registration and for mail-in registrations to be received, but thanks to a new 2019 law, you can register in person through Election Day on Nov. 3. According to King County Elections, around 120,000 people have registered this year, as of Friday, compared to a total of 100,000 in 2016.
Olow came to the U.S. as a refugee at age 10, but it wasn’t until she was 15 that she began to learn more about the complicated history of her new country.
She learned about the enslavement of Black people in the U.S., and the self-determination and resistance they exercised to fight that oppressive system and the hard-won rights that were gained through that struggle.
“Ever since then, I committed to doing all that I can to do my part and carry the torch in whatever form that comes in, [including] voting,” Olow said. She said for many immigrants and refugees, there is a lot of fear that can come with participating in the political process, and her family is no exception. Fleeing Somalia’s 1991 civil war left many scars, and Somali community members remember the terror and political violence of that time.
“Many of us have that trauma at the back of our minds of something terrible happening,” Olow said. Olow’s two grandmothers plan to stay at her house after the election, to be together as a family if any conflicts break out. Since 9/11, as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, Olow has felt like a target. Her mother fears for her safety in being such an outspoken and public advocate for immigrants and refugees.
But Olow is undaunted and determined to make her community’s voice heard.
“It’s nothing compared to what Black and Indigenous people have endured and other communities of color. And so that keeps me going,” Olow said. “It is our turn to carry this torch, because this country has given us so much and because many people have fought for the rights that we have now. Our struggles are connected and we’re all interdependent on each other as human beings.”