As we approach Election Day this November and another presidential election year, let’s take a moment to think about civic engagement and the profound impact it has on our nation’s economy, social fabric and future position in the world.

The definitions of civic engagement are many, but we can all agree that a healthy democracy needs all individuals to have a basic understanding of how government works and how to access information on policy and other issues that affect them, their loved ones and their neighborhoods. We have an obligation to ensure our democratic processes and necessary resources and information are fully accessible for all to participate in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner.

Civic engagement is the fundamental machine that facilitates healthy, two-way communication between citizens and their elected leaders who oversee our government. The reciprocal dialogue grown out of civic engagement allows for inclusive and indispensable public discourse on policy issues across the board.

Civic engagement during an electoral process may look different at an individual level versus a group level. For example, casting a vote, placing a bumper sticker on your car, planting a yard sign or volunteering on a campaign are some of the different ways individuals engage during elections. At the group-level, engagement takes a different shape as forces assemble for “collective action” on a particular issue or candidate. All these forms of participation encourage a healthy electoral system, democracy and a nationwide exchange of goals, concepts and dreams for the future.  

But what happens when a portion of the electorate doesn’t engage, and what can we do to change that? Talking about civic engagement at a basic level requires a short trip through time to remember the evolution of voter participation in our nation’s history, including the disenfranchisement of Black Americans and other minority groups and intentional decisions to suppress the vote. 

In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed that the right to vote could not be denied based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” This amendment complemented the 13th and 14th amendments, which abolished slavery and guaranteed citizenship to Black Americans, respectively. Women finally received the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 historically expanded voter registration and voter participation. The fight is not over. Many are the battles to get us closer to true representation; one of those battles was won this summer with the Supreme Court decision in favor of Black voters in a congressional redistricting case in Alabama. 

When minority communities engage and participate in electoral politics, the bones of our democracy get stronger through more comprehensive representation in government. Diverse input helps us better confront our unique challenges through policies that embrace inclusion and our shared ideals of prosperity. Who better to advance policy decisions on issues rooted in systemic inequality than people who have been disproportionately impacted by them? As our demographics continue to shift, civic engagement fosters representation for our children by leadership they can identify with and who make them feel like it’s possible to dream.

A fully engaged community is a fully vested community. Empowering people to participate in the processes that decide who represents them gives them a sense of belonging and hope. Minority voices and communities have developed an incredible resilience but currently struggle to find optimism amid a divided nation that, in many instances, attacks the very sense of who they are. Carrying the disproportionate weight of poverty, homelessness, negative physical and mental health outcomes, environmental hazards and other social determinants of health are structural burdens that do not encourage confidence and trust in the value of civic engagement.

More and more of our population identifies as a racial and ethnic minority community. They will be the future workforce and leaders of our nation. It is in the best interest of ALL to create a space where they can fully participate in our democratic system. Let’s address the issues that matter to them, include them culturally and linguistically in healthy two-way communication of civic engagement and remove barriers for them to participate, which will strengthen our democracy with true representation.

As stated by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Our democracy awaits ALL to participate, and it is up to us to speak up when barriers are constructed to prevent that.  

Sen. Luz Escamilla is minority leader in the Utah Senate and past director of the State Office of Ethnic Affairs.

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.