Michelle Obama delivers impassioned speech on voting: ‘If you don’t…others will!’

The former first lady issued the keynote address at the inaugural Culture of Democracy Summit, hosted by her nonprofit organization When We All Vote.

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Former first lady Michelle Obama delivered an impassioned speech on Monday during the inaugural Culture of Democracy Summit, hosted by her nonprofit organization When We All Vote.

Mrs. Obama, a national figure known for her ability to inspire, did not hold back on her assessment of the state of the country and the need for Americans to respond in kind with their commitment to vote in this year’s upcoming elections and in the years to come.

When We All Vote Founder and Co-Chair Michelle Obama gives the Keynote Speech onstage at When We All Vote Inaugural Culture Of Democracy Summit on June 13, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

“I would love it if I could stand up here and simply make this a celebration of the work so many of you have done,” said The New York Times bestselling author of Becoming, referring to the record voter turnout in the 2020 election. 

“I’d love to be able to tell you that everything is as it should be, and we have nothing to be afraid of. To stand up here, clear my throat, and say the state of our democracy is strong.”

She declared, “I can’t say that right now.”

Mrs. Obama’s keynote address was delivered before attendees of the Culture of Democracy Summit, held in Los Angeles at the Banc of California Stadium. The summit was attended by cultural influencers, including grassroots volunteers, musicians, athletes, academics and industry leaders across various sectors.

Obama acknowledged a host of political and social crises in the United States, including the recent mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were fatally shot inside of an elementary school, as well as in Buffalo, New York, where 10 African Americans were murdered by an alleged white supremacist gunman

“My heart still aches for all those families,” said the former first lady, who expressed that she was encouraged by the recent bipartisan talks on Capitol Hill between Democrats and Republicans to pass gun reform legislation. 

But Obama cautioned that urgent social issues like gun violence, climate change, and even more politically fraught issues, like censoring certain books in schools and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building, illustrate how much America’s democracy—often hailed by U.S. citizens as the greatest in the world—is in need of repair.

“We’re seeing a deep discrepancy between what we tell ourselves about this country and what we can see with our own eyes,” she said. Obama went on to denounce laws in states like Georgia and Texas that restrict access to the ballot, including limiting early voting, mail-in voting, and requiring certain forms of ID cards. In Georgia, lawmakers went so far as to ban the distribution of water and food to voters waiting in lines outside voting centers.

“We see states working to change the way elections are administered [and] putting partisan actors in charge of voting procedures and certification,” Obama lamented.

The Chicago native acknowledged that the doom and gloom realities of the United States are “scary to think about” and “leaves us all feeling helpless.” 

“Lord knows we all need to do some self-preservation just to get through the day,” Obama admitted. “Sometimes it’s just easier to look away, to type in a hashtag, feel like we’ve done something and go about our business.” 

Returning to her call to action, Mrs. Obama added, “Just because it’s easier, doesn’t mean it’s right.” 

She warned that the aforementioned crises could easily become anyone’s reality, and there’s “no guarantee” that things won’t soon get worse. The only way to improve the state of U.S. democracy, said Mrs. Obama, was for Americans to stay informed on the issues and consistently exercise their right to vote. 

When We All Vote Founder and Co-Chair Michelle Obama gives the Keynote Speech onstage at When We All Vote Inaugural Culture Of Democracy Summit on June 13, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

“No one has the luxury to sit out or stay at home just because you’re not feeling excited enough,” she warned. “If you don’t vote, other people will.”

While nothing happens overnight, she acknowledged, she reminded: “Big changes happen over decades [and] over generations.”

Obama also sent a strong message to the U.S. Congress for failing to act on passing legislation that would protect the right to vote. “We’ve got to take a long hard look at how we can make Congress itself better. That means changing the filibuster if that’s what it takes to save our democracy,” said Obama, referring to the U.S. Senate rule used by Republicans that has been a roadblock to several key legislative items, including voting reform, police reform and President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act.

Mrs. Obama also affirmed her support for D.C. and Puerto Rico’s statehood, which would give its residents full voting power on the federal level, equal to the current 50 U.S. states that have representation in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

In another call to action, Obama urged attendees of the Culture of Democracy Summit to “activate” their networks and encourage everyone they know to do their part in spreading the word about the importance of voting. She also asked that attendees register with When We All Vote to become volunteers and help the organization in its mission to register voters, educate voters and encourage voters to participate in elections. 

Stephanie L. Young, executive director of When We All Vote, told theGrio that Mrs. Obama’s keynote address was intentionally designed to activate the Culture of Democracy Summit’s attendees who would hopefully “be fired up and take action.”

(L-R) Gia Peppers and Executive Director at When We All Vote Stephanie Young speak onstage during Opening Remarks at When We All Vote Inaugural Culture Of Democracy Summit on June 13, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

“The beauty of this organization is that those who are inspired by her, then go back and inspire others,” said Young. 

“That person that’s fired up and taking action is going back into their community, and the people who admire them the most—because we are influenced by the people in our lives—they have the opportunity to move those people to action.” 

Young described it as a  “chain of inspiration” to get people excited about “participating in our democracy.”

When We All Vote, which is nonpartisan, is the brainchild of Michelle Obama, who founded the national organization in 2018. Its mission, said Young, is to “change the culture around voting and to increase participation in every election.”

Much like Mrs. Obama herself, the organization has been intentional about its voting campaigns. Even then the name of the summit—Democracy of Culture—was a deliberate decision.

Former first lady Michelle Obama, center, interacts with When We All Vote staff members after speaking at the Culture of Democracy Summit in Los Angeles, Monday, June 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

“It is so important that voting is seen as a part of the cultural zeitgeist,” said Young, who expressed the importance of voting no longer being seen as something one does only when things are bad.

“We are really trying to change the way people look at voting in this country [and] really are trying to change the way people look at civic engagement in this country,” added Young, who also noted a statistic that only 8 percent of Gen Z consume traditional news.

Making voting or civic engagement a cultural movement is the most effective way to reach masses of people, she added.

“We’re trying to make it cool, but really we’re trying to make it relevant.”

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