VAAC Member Spotlight: Kenneth Gourlay

Kenneth Gourlay is a graduate student studying sociology at Wayne State University. He has several published, peer-reviewed academic articles on issues involving race, sex, and discrimination. He continues to pursue knowledge related to discourse about gender and sexuality, and the meanings that are constructed through the way we speak about these topics. Kenneth also works as a website and social media marketing consultant, and he helps VAAC maintain their website. He is often seen on local rivers in his hand-built cedar strip canoe.

Interview with Kenneth Gourlay

Below, Kenneth Gourlay speaks about his passions and motivations for his involement with Voting Access for All Coalition.

What do you see as the biggest problem facing society right now?

There is an apathy about government that disconnects people from civic community. More often than not, government leadership is seen as “them,” not “us”. Without a doubt, politicians are often out of touch from citizens’ concerns, sometimes even corrupt. But each one of us has the power to change this state of affairs. Each of us has the power to vote, which, should we choose to use it, means we can elect people who actually understand and represent us. 

How did your life lead you to an interest in voting access?

I have always loved voting. Casting a ballot feels like the most direct involvement I have in my larger community. It gives me a sense of connection to the principles on which our country was founded, and it feels like the least I can do to make the world a better place.

While I was being held in the Washtenaw County Jail, I tried to vote and was unable to. I requested an absentee ballot and never got it. I don’t know what went wrong. To be honest, at the time, I had bigger problems to worry about. Looking back, I see that I fell victim to a broader issue of disenfranchisement that affects many people all the time. I suspect that I was the only person in the jail at that time who even considered voting, and I imagine that none of the staff ever thought about people in the jail voting either. Voting is not just a right, it is a duty: our system of government only works well when everyone participates.

How has your experience shaped your view of voting?

There are so many problems in our community that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It can feel like there’s nothing we can do as individuals to fight against the powers of vested interests corruption, greed, or even indifference. One vote out of several million, or even one out of a few thousand as in a local election, seems like an inconsequential drop in the bucket. But at the same time, it is the simplest and most direct form of civic involvement. Your vote is where your voice counts the most directly and firmly.

Fortunately, voting is not the only thing we can do to have an influence on government and politics. We can also write letters, talk to people, call out injustices and failures, hold peaceful protests, and more. But at the end of the day, it’s the vote that counts.

What do people need to know about their voting rights?

So much energy is spent on national elections, especially Presidential elections. I think there is much more progress to be made by focusing on local elections. If we pay attention to the political leaders closest to us—our mayors, city council, commissioners, sheriffs, etc.—we can be much more directly involved in the civic work that affects us most. And I believe that politics can have a trickle-up effect where changes at the local level will ultimately have a powerful influence on the nation.

I also hope that people become more aware of systemic barriers to choice, even when everyone is able to cast a ballot. Our two-party system is one of the biggest weaknesses in our politics right now. We need better choices. We need to demand the ability to vote for candidates beyond those who are deeply invested in the two major political parties, without those candidates being seen as “spoilers.”

Kenneth Gourlay

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