On Tuesday, as the House passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, I was filled with hope for our democracy. But overshadowing that hope was moral indignation, as I realized that not a single Republican member voted in favor of the act — further proof that voting rights has metastasized into a hyper-partisan issue in 2021, despite its long history of bipartisan support.
After it was signed into law by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized five times; each time the reauthorization was signed by a Republican president. When it was reauthorized most recently in 2006, it passed the Senate with unanimous support: 98 to 0. Guaranteeing the sacred right to vote for all citizens has been — and should continue to be — a nonpartisan cause and bipartisan priority. For democracy to work for all of us, it must include us all.
As people of faith, we are called to close the gap between the brokenness of what is and what ought to be. We are called to a higher standard of truth-telling, even if that truth is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and costly. And here is the truth: Restricting voting under the pretense of election security is based on a mountain of lies. The truth is that these efforts are often rooted in the spiritual lie that the full benefits of U.S. citizenship are a privilege for some rather than a fundamental right for all. The truth is that one party is trying to expand the electorate while the other is trying to shrink it to maintain power and blunt the impact of the changing demographics that do not work in its favor. The truth is that one party largely continues to either embrace or capitulate to the Big Lie that the last election was stolen due to widespread voter fraud.
We need the federal government to strengthen the Voting Rights Act because of the GOP's efforts to pass more restrictive state voting bills — bills that often have the explicit goal of deterring the votes of communities of color, young people, and more. Many GOP politicians and operatives have even acknowledged that this is their explicit motivation and goal. As we have argued over the past few election cycles, these efforts are not only anti-democratic, they are an assault on imago dei, the very image of God.
The struggle that is unfolding around voting rights feels eerily familiar: We are hearing the same arguments that were used by Southern politicians during the height of the civil rights struggle to block the original 1965 Voting Rights Act. Central to this argument is an emphasis on states’ rights, stoking fears of federal takeover. In a letter sent on Monday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 15 Republican members argued that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act “would federalize our election system, give more power to unelected career bureaucrats in Washington, and unconstitutionally erode the ability of states to oversee elections.” Once again states’ rights are being used to avoid addressing the anti-voter impact of legislation that has been passed by Republican-controlled legislatures.
During the debate over the bill this week, we also heard many GOP politicians and conservative pundits argue that record turnout in 2020 makes voting rights legislation unnecessary. But record turnout, particularly within communities of color, was fueled by unprecedented organizing efforts because of how much was at stake in the last election; while we can’t predict how many voters will be deterred from voting in the future due to new state laws, there is already evidence that these restrictions may be keeping people of color from voting. For example, in the 2016 election in Wisconsin, strict voter ID laws prevented 8 percent of whites and 27 percent of African Americans from voting. That alone is enough to impact an election and yet does not account for other suppressive efforts, like voter roll purges, polling place relocations and closures, disinformation campaigns, and voter intimidation.
In many places across the country today, the promise of democracy is still at risk. States have introduced more than 400 state bills and enacted 30 laws that erect barriers to the ballot box for millions of Americans. And last month’s Supreme Court Brnovich v. DNC decision — which upheld Arizona’s ban on third-party ballot collection and invalidating of ballots cast in the wrong precincts — will make it even more difficult for voters to challenge voting restrictions in the future. That is why we must come together to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and restore the federal government’s ability to block state and local governments from passing racially discriminatory bills.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore the original Voting Rights Act in several important ways. In addition to updating the formula for deciding which states and localities require approval to change voting laws, it would also require that certain types of changes to voting laws be pre-approved if proposed in a diverse area. States and localities would also need to give public notice to all voters of some types of voting changes. And it would address the recent Brnovich v. DNC decision by clarifying which factors voters of color can use to prove the impact of their vote had been diluted or their right to vote denied under section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The bill contains many other similarly important provisions — passing it would restore the ability of the Voting Rights Act to block discriminatory voting practices before they go into effect.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the last test whether there are enough Republican senators of conscience who will be willing to place safeguarding our democracy and protecting the right to vote over party loyalty and short-term interests. I pray that there are, but reality and experience have shown the opposite. That’s why, if necessary, it is imperative that Democrats find the moral courage to temporarily suspend the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation.
Because protecting the right to vote is so critically important to the health of our democracy, I hope and pray that you will join me in the March On For Voting Rights events this weekend in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Phoenix, and other cities around the country. These critical marches will commemorate the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech; King’s son, Martin Luther King III, will headline the Washington march this year. As the organizers state:
Marching is a form of nonviolent protest, and protest is a form of democratic expression older than America itself. We march to shine the light of truth on what is happening in state legislatures, ensure that Americans understand what’s at stake, and give people a mechanism to demand action on this most urgent issue of our generation.
If you are at all able to do so and live in the D.C. area, I urge you to connect to the event organizers and offer to volunteer this Saturday. If you live in or near any of the other cities, I hope you will also put on your marching shoes and raise your voices to protect the sacred right to vote. I can’t think of a better way to honor the inspiring legacy of Rep. John Lewis.
“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” These are the iconic words of freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer. Yes, our freedom is truly interdependent and intertwined, and nothing protects our freedom more in our democracy than people freely exercising their right to vote.
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