The Common Good

Florida: You Cannot Take Our Vote

Monday marked the 93rd anniversary of the congressional passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on June 4, 1919.

After 71 years of movement forward and pushes back, the proposed Amendment to guarantee every woman in the United States the right to vote prevailed in the Senate. But it still had 36 more hurdles to jump before ratification; 36 of the then 48 states had to pass the Amendment in their state legislatures. On August 18, 1920 Tennessee became the 36th state to pass the Amendment and on that day women’s suffrage became the law of the land.

Florida missed that boat. The sunshine state had never voted on the 19th Amendment before it was ratified. A year later, the Florida state legislature passed its own law guaranteeing the vote to all citizens, but Florida’s legislature didn’t actually ratify the 19th Amendment until it took a symbolic vote in 1969.

As a woman I am grateful for the fact that in 1969 someone thought it might be a good idea to at least symbolically say, “Yeah, man, we’re cool with the ladies voting. We can groove with that.” But the current news about Florida’s voter purge has me wondering what happened in the 43 years between Florida’s symbolic thumbs up for suffrage and today’s current voter suppression?

The answer: The year 2000 happened.

Katherine Harris was elected Florida’s Secretary of State in 1998. Soon after, she initiated a voter purge in Florida that had been unseen since the days of Jim Crow. More than 57,700 eligible voters were wrongfully purged from Florida’s voter rolls. A disproportionate number stricken from Florida’s voter rolls were black, according to investigative reporter Gregory Palast.

Harris claimed the purge was an attempt to block convicted felons from voting, but the purge was conducted in such a way that the state gave itself liberal latitude to strike names that were not confirmed felons.

Since 2000 voter suppression seems to have become commonplace, just a political tactic to win elections. And recently Florida launched a new voter suppression campaign that claims to target non-citizens, but disproportionately affects Latinos and relies on an unreliable list of 2700 potential citizens.

Why should voter purges and voter suppression matter to people of faith? Because the ability to vote is a fundamental way that citizens in a democracy have the ability to exercise biblical dominion.

In Genesis 1, the writer reveals the nature of human relationships with God, with each other, with the rest of creation, with life itself, and with the systems that govern us. The climax of Genesis 1, written in the classic form of an ancient epic Hebrew poem, comes at the point when God creates humanity: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image according to our likeness, and let them have dominion…” (Genesis 1:26a)

The word “dominion” in this text is surrounded by controversy because it has been used to justify all manner of sins against the rest of creation, but in its cultural context the Hebrew word radah communicates something much more akin to stewardship. It elicits the concept of maintaining the wellness of all the relationships God created in creation.

In this vast untamed wilderness the call to exercise radah is a call to maintain the boundaries of God’s creation. In our modern lexicon, I believe the closest thing to the concept of biblical dominion that we have is the concept of agency—the ability to take action in one’s world and make an impact.

Grammatically, the ability to exercise dominion is directly connected with the fact that human kind is made in the image of God. Thus the ability to exercise of agency in our world is required if we are to live fully into the image of God within ourselves. That is why freedom is so incredibly important in the human experience.

When we take away the freedom of another human-being to exercise agency, then we trounce on the image of God in them.

This is why the democratic vote is so precious—agency. In a democracy, the ability to vote is one of the most basic ways each citizen is given to exercise agency in her world. The democratic vote recognizes the image of God in every citizen and affirms one fundamental truth: no matter how poor you are, no matter how rich you are, no matter marginalized you are, no matter how much power you wield, no matter obscure your life, and no matter how famous your name—all are made in the image of God and therefore have the right to exercise a most basic form of agency in our world—the cast of a vote.

So, in this week when we celebrate the congressional passage of the 19th Amendment, I celebrate the Justice Department’s decision to block implementation of Florida’s latest ode to Jim Crow. And I thank the 67 county elections supervisors, 30 of whom are Republican, who have defied Gov. Rick Scott and refused to implement the Florida purge. And I pray for the protection of the image of God in every single Floridian and for citizens in every other state that is willing to suppress the image of God in their neighbors.

And now we all must stand as those brave women stood in 1916; like sentinels at the gates and we must make it clear in every state capitol building and in every state legislator’s office: You can take away many things; but you cannot take our vote.

Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.

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