There’s a billboard on the West Side Highway, in New York City, sponsored by shoe designer (and new amfAR board chairman) Kenneth Cole. It reads: 100 MILLION VOTERS MADE A HUGE IMPACT ON THE LAST ELECTION. THEY DIDN’T VOTE.
Voting is about creating the future. I founded POZ because the government and the media had stolen the future from people with “the inevitably fatal disease” AIDS. The first step to survival—to a future—is to believe in its very possibility. That’s why POZ, along with AIDS, Vote.org, Housing Works, the National Association of People With AIDS, Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the Gill Foundation and other AIDS service organizations (ASOs) has launched an ambitious campaign to make sure every person with HIV can and—let’s hope—will vote. (To order an absentee ballot or more information, go to poz.com)
Larry Kramer says that, ultimately, the only thing that really motivates people to act is fear. We have much to fear from a second Bush term. Is it frightening to think that this election could decide whether state ADAP programs lose their funding and tens of thousands of HIVers are forced off treatment? Whether many more young people are taught the lie that condoms don’t work, in favor of abstinence-only education, which research shows leads to higher HIV-infection rates? Whether HIVers, in order to be legally protected, must get a notarized affidavit from any potential sex partner? Sound alarmist, even absurd? Don’t laugh. Our rights to meds, to sex, to life itself hang in the balance. Whether you vote out of fear of another Bush term or out of hope that Kerry’s White House record will be as good as his excellent Senate record (full disclosure: I donated to Kerry’s presidential campaign), it is critical that your voice be heard and your vote counted.
With HIVers scattered far and wide, ASOs are our community centers and town halls. They have the responsibility to encourage their clients to vote—either in person or by absentee ballot—just as they encourage them to combat addictions, access health care and job training, care for their children and adhere to treatment. It is their responsibility to empower each HIVer, making sure we are a vital part of the democracy, not simply statistics in a report to lawmakers.
Unfortunately, as if we needed any more evidence of this administration’s bullying HIVers into silence, some ASO staff have told us that they are reluctant to facilitate voter registration and absentee balloting. Why? Fear. They fear reprisals in the form of denied funding or accusations of being “political”—prompting harassment and investigations. All are weapons Bush has used against ASOs that fail to toe his religious line. They pay the price of getting cutback or cut out. Voter intimidation is taking many forms this year. Some are blatant: Jeb Bush–governed Florida has armed white law-enforcement officials going door-to-door in African-American neighborhoods questioning voting practices. Other tactics are more subtle, though still chilling, like the intimidation felt by these officials at AIDS organizations.
But fear is no excuse for playing into the hands of those who would silence our political voice. While not-for-profit organizations cannot advocate on behalf of a particular candidate—nor should they—they can educate their clients on the importance of voting and make it easier for them to do so. If your ASO does not encourage or facilitate voter registration and absentee balloting, I hope you’ll let me know at SeanS@poz.com. I’ll contact their board members and tell them why they should.
The campaign to marginalize society’s weakest members relies on people not voting. Those who believe that we are evil, that we deserve to be ill and die, those who would imprison us and deny us treatment have huge networks of not-for-profit and religious organizations turning out voters. This election, all HIVers and ASOs alike must have the guts to make change and revive science-based prevention, expand health-care access and create a future geared toward ending the global pandemic. Otherwise, we will—literally and lethally—get what we deserve.