Kerry Washington still remembers her first time. She wasn’t the one voting, actually—it was her mother, the two of them standing in line together at the community center in their Bronx apartment building. Washington was a child, allowed to step behind the curtain while her mother filled in each bubble with pencil. She remembers the experience feeling “like The Wizard of Oz”: magical, important, but shrouded in mystery behind the curtain.
It’s an apt simile for an experience many find lacking in transparency. Rarely do voters feel much autonomy when they learn the inner workings of the Electoral College, America’s version of the Emerald City’s reclusive ruler pulling levers behind the scenes. Washington knows that feeling of disenfranchisement all too well: She’s built a career out of playing characters who reclaim their power in series including Scandal and Little Fires Everywhere. That’s why she’s here today, trying to convince the masses to do the same: Use your voice. Peel back the curtain. Be the protagonist, the hero. Vote.
On October 29 at 9 p.m. EST, Washington will host Every Vote Counts: A Celebration of Democracy on CBS alongside co-hosts Alicia Keys and America Ferrera. The broadcast special, produced by Live Nation, Global Citizen and Live Animals with executive producers Hugh Evans and Michael Rapino, will feature interviews, speakers, and musical performances from guests including Shawn Mendes, Coldplay, Offset, Jennifer Lopez, Kelly Clarkson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Condoleezza Rice and more. Ahead of the big night, ELLE.com talks to Washington about her perspective on the nationwide movement to get out the vote.
You described voting with your mother as a magical experience. How do you find that same joy in voting now, in our current climate?
I guess I’m finding it in us, in the American people. I’m looking at the record numbers of people who are voting early, the record numbers of people who are registering. It fills me with a lot of hope, because I feel like we’re really looking out for each other right now, and we’re starting to understand that our voices and our votes really do matter. And I think we still have a lot of work to do to convince everybody of how much each and every single one of us matters.
In the wake of such a challenging year, how do you convince people that their vote is quantifiable, that it does make a difference in a broken system?
Even when we are struggling with having faith in our system, we can have faith in each other to hold those systems accountable. So if we show up, and we say out loud that every single one of our votes matters, that every vote counts, that is part of how we protect the idea of democracy.
And I like to say to people, look, we pay [politicians’s] salaries. Every elected official who runs for an office and gets an office, whether it’s a judge or—I mean, even some people who aren’t elected officials, people who just work for the city or the state, your police officers, your judges, your Congress people, your president of the United States—when we pay our taxes, we pay their salaries. So a lot of this is about bossing up. Money is being taken out of your paycheck to pay them. You might as well hold them accountable. You might as well use your vote to express your values because you’re paying them. How can I make sure that the people who work for me are the people I want to hire?
You’re an outspoken supporter of the Biden-Harris campaign. Was there a point in your life where you actively decided that you were going to be bold about your political opinions and announce them publicly, or was that something that’s always been baked into your DNA?
I’ve always been really involved in civic engagement and have since I was 13. So for me, the decision was not as much, “Do I want to express my values?” It was more, “As my career continues to unfold, will I choose to silence myself?” Because I don’t speak out as a “celebrity.” I speak out because I live in a democracy. I’m an American. Our First Amendment right is the right to free speech, and democracy works, again, when we all show up, when we vote, when we protest, when we volunteer. And so for me, it was more of a decision to not silence myself out of fear that I may not continue to work or be able to cultivate fans or whatever that looks like.
Every Vote Counts is a meeting of art and activism. How does your art and your career fuel your work as an activist?
I think they come from the same place, interestingly. The stories I’m drawn to telling are stories about marginalized people. So that idea of three dimensional-izing women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, anybody who feels marginalized, is something I’m really drawn to in my art, and also what I’m drawn to in my activism.
So many people are exhausted and frustrated knowing our political system isn’t magically going to heal itself, no matter who we end up electing this November. As we move past this election, how do we keep the wheels spinning?
We are a nation that is written to be by the people, for the people. So getting us all excited about that idea so that we can commit to showing up in these numbers in the long term, regardless of who’s running—you know, I show up to vote because I’m passionate about my family and my community and what matters to me, not necessarily because I’m passionate about a particular candidate. And listen, I am passionate about a particular candidate. But for this to work for everybody and to work long-term, it has to be regardless of the candidate.
I think we’re in an interesting moment. This year has been so challenging in a lot of ways, because many of us have lost so many heroes, whether it’s Chadwick Boseman, our Black Panther, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or John Lewis, and I’ve been trying to think about, why is that? To try to create some meaning around that mourning for myself. I really think the time for hero worship is slipping away and we are being forced to consider ourselves as the hero of this story—each of us. Can we be the hero of our family, of our neighborhood, of our own community and not expect other people to fix the problem? That’s how democracy works. We have to each show up.
Voting rhetoric is inherently complicated because our voting system is inherently flawed. Millions of people can’t vote because they’re undocumented or they’ve been convicted of a felony or they don’t have the access or information they need. What would you say to people who want to know what more they can do beyond putting in their ballot next week? What are other ways that people can get involved to feel, as you’re saying, like they can be the heroes in this narrative of our democracy?
There’s a need for poll workers. So volunteering to be a poll worker is something that’s really powerful right now. There are wonderful organizations like Fair Fight 2020. That is Stacey Abram’s organization where they are doing phenomenal work around equity in voting. If you want to volunteer in order to help protect the democratic process, there are so many ways to do that, but also I would say you are the most powerful person to influence your friends and family when it comes to voting messages. Alicia and America and I, we can stand on a soundstage on CBS and tell everybody how important it is to vote, but the reality is that when people hear from their sisters and their brothers and their mothers and daughters and cousins and neighbors, that is what has the most impact.
I would say, “Look at your own contact list.” Think about the three to five people that need that extra nudge and say, “Can I help you make a voting plan? Do you know when you’re going to vote? Do you want to go together? Are you aware of where your polling place is? Do you need some support? Do you need a ride?” Reach and let them know that you know that they matter and that their voice matters to you. That is the single most important thing you can do.
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