For Annie Benifield, voting is in her blood. Her father was a first generation born out of slavery African American, who lived to be 90 years old and never missed an opportunity to vote once he was given the right. Her father passed in 2004, but his dedication has served as fuel to her fire to make voting a priority in her life.
Now, as the first woman of color to lead the League of Women Voters of Houston, Benifield works overtime to get as many people as possible to the polls. She talked with the Defender about her efforts.
Defender: The League of Women Voters of Houston is a nonpartisan organization that believes in the power of every person to create a more perfect democracy. As the first Black woman to lead the organization, why is this something that’s immensely important to you?
Annie Benifield: Voting rights is not a partisan issue. It’s critical that people get to participate in the political process in a democracy. The expectation is that citizens get to weigh in and engage. And one way they can do that is by the ballot. So this is not partisan, this is just affirmation of the democratic process. My parents didn’t get a chance to cast a ballot until they were a half a century old. Do we want our children not to experience that process? So I’m trying to make sure that I do everything that I possibly can do as president of the League of Women Voters to ensure registration, then engagement, education and empowerment.
Defender: What do you say to people who usually don’t pay as much attention to midterm elections?
Benifield: All elections are important, but this election is particularly important because the direction of the state and nation is dependent upon what happens in the midterm election. Some of the most populated states have gubernatorial candidates on the ballot. And that could totally change the tide in terms of how things are going and where things are going.
Defender: You have an amazing energy when it comes to talking about voting. What is it that drives you?
Benifield: I want people to get energized about the election and be excited because democracy is not a spectator sport where people get to come and sit in the bleachers and just watch events as they unfold. It’s a gladiator sport, where you get engaged and get involved and fight for what you believe in, such as voting rights, equality, and justice.
Defender: Your efforts go beyond voter registration, and you’re vocal about that being only half the battle.
Benefiel: Voter empowerment comes out of voter registration, but the second aspect of that is voter education, engagement, which comes as a direct result of participating in the political process, casting a ballot, meaning that you have a say of what happens in your society. Every citizen, irrespective of whatever race, creed, nationality or whatever, should have an opportunity to have a say. That doesn’t mean you’re going to win every time, that doesn’t mean your candidate is going to win or the policy you voted for is going to be the prevailing sentiment in terms of the majority. But at least you had a say in terms of what happens in your community. You get to choose your political leaders. Your political leaders should not get to choose their voters.
Defender: What do you say to the apathetic voter who is just like, ‘My vote really doesn’t matter’ or ‘all the candidates are the same.’
Benifield: When you talk about communities of color, you are here as a direct result of your ancestors being captured, held in dungeons, the transatlantic voyage, slavery, segregation, and lynching. You have a responsibility and obligation to honor what they fought so hard for. It’s important that you show people that you are engaged, vested in your community. That you want to see fundamental change take place. This is the community that we can have an impact on. So voting is a fundamental right. Democracy requires each of us to step up to the plate. I think President Obama said a long time ago that if you’re not at the table, you are on the menu. And so we have to show that we are not on the menu, that we are at the table, we are engaging, and we are responding to what’s happening in our community.