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Opinion: Voting in Aug. 4 primary election can save Black lives

Paul J. Fleming

Premature deaths among Black Americans point to the deep racial inequities that our elected officials have baked into our society over time. In Michigan, redlining and restrictive zoning have created conditions where Black residents are much more likely than white residents to suffer premature death from COVID-19.

The premature deaths of George Floyd and countless others at the hands of law enforcement has made police violence one of the leading causes of death for young Black men, according to a recent University of Michigan study.

Undoing this legacy of disproportionate harm requires various transformative actions but should involve electing local decision-makers who are committed to creating more equitable communities. Michigan residents have such an opportunity on Tuesday with the primary elections. 

There are several key important local races that will have huge implications on risk of premature death because health is so closely connected to the systems and resources controlled by local elected officials (e.g. criminal justice system, affordable housing, safe drinking water).

Elected officials play an important role in the health of a community, Fleming writes.

Despite the importance of these races, only 27% of Wayne County eligible voters cast their ballot in person in the August 2018 primary that preceded the midterm elections. That means that only a small portion of Wayne County voters are making decisions that will have a big impact on the health and well-being of all residents. 

As a professor of public health, I know that a "Health in All Policies" approach (endorsed by the CDC and WHO) requires us to confront health inequities from all policy areas, including those not typically seen as health-related. We need to create the conditions for good health for all residents by seeking changes in the various policies (e.g. criminal justice, law enforcement, housing, transportation, etc.) that are determined by elected officials.

Take, for example, the elections for county prosecutor, which are quite competitive in Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties. Prosecutors have "prosecutorial discretion" or the ability to decide whether or not to charge someone with a crime or several crimes. Their decisions about which charges to bring and cash bail to request have big implications for mass incarceration and premature death of Black residents.

Research shows stark racial biases in sentencing, and that without mass incarceration policies — many of which are determined by locally elected prosecutors — U.S. life expectancy between 1981 and 2007 would have increased by almost two years years, one study found. On election day and beyond, voters in Michigan have the opportunity to demand that their county prosecutors value Black lives and make policy changes to their office like diverting funds into community-led programs, ending cash bail, and decriminalizing poverty, mental health, and substance use. 

Voters can also cast ballots for such officials as county sheriffs and circuit court judges. The sheriff operates the county jails and the circuit court judge presides over trials and, along with the prosecutor, helps determine who will be jailed. Given that some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks are within jails, these elected officials make decisions — such as releasing people from jail or other safety measures — that will help determine who dies from COVID-19 or suffers the other negative health consequences of imprisonment. 

The racial biases within our criminal justice system — which these elected officials can help undo — mean that Black Michigan residents will disproportionately bear the health consequences of these decisions. 

County commissioners on the ballot make decisions about the county budget, including how much money to invest in jails versus invest into community-led health and welfare programs. Budgets reflect priorities, and reducing health disparities requires commissioners who are willing to divert funding from harmful systems into health-promoting resources for our communities. 

To truly prevent premature deaths of Black Americans, we need more transformative changes than the Aug. 4 election alone can provide. But we need to seize every opportunity for incremental change by electing people into these positions that truly value Black lives and are willing to implement policies that will help stop premature deaths.

Some grassroots organizations have created resources to help voters identify candidates that support policies that can help promote health and well-being. It is critical that voters pay attention to these local elected officials and both vote and advocate for them to enact policies that help reduce racial health inequities.

Paul J. Fleming is an assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a member of the Michigan Chapter of Public Health Awakened.