Commentary
By Jim Wallis 10-17-2018

It just keeps happening. Voter suppression that is. Too many political leaders — who are disproportionately white — will use every option available to try and prevent some — disproportionately people of color — from voting. It just keeps happening, and many Americans either don’t know, don’t care, or wholeheartedly favor denying their fellow citizens of color the right to vote. Because it keeps happening, we must ask if support for this practice is as prevalent for white Christians as it is for white non-Christians.

We should make this a test of faith — protecting the right of all to vote. It’s a question of whether we believe in the image of God — the imago dei referenced in Genesis 1 — or not.

Let me repeat the most central fact of American political life today: The systemic white strategy is to prevent America’s changing demography from changing America’s democracy. I will keep repeating that until we start talking about it out loud, in our churches, discerning how to confront the systemic nature of white supremacy and what its manifestations say about people’s faith in the God of the Bible.

While people can and should differ in what party or candidates they support, voting itself should not be a partisan issue. And yet, it is undoubtedly the case that since the Supreme Court invalidated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby vs. Holder in 2013. After the ruling, many southern states immediately set to work in making voting more difficult (again) for people of color, as Emory professor Carol Anderson explains in the cover story of Sojourners magazine’s November issue.

Chief Justice John Roberts’ logic in Shelby vs. Holder essentially amounted to saying, “racism isn’t a problem in these states like it was in 1965, therefore they don’t need the oversight of the Justice Department in their elections anymore.” Can Roberts really be that unaware of the reality of life for people of color still is in America, and especially in the South? Or is this just another example of how systemic and habitual it is for too many white people in power to use whatever means to hold onto it for as long as they can. It’s puzzling logic, especially in hindsight, because it appears that the only thing that was making these states administer elections in ways that did not seek to suppress minority voting was, in fact, the Voting Rights Act and the federal oversight it provided. And the Roberts Supreme Court gutted it.

As we approach what could be the most important midterm election of my lifetime, with democracy itself on the ballot in terms of constraining, even somewhat, Donald Trump’s frightening use of power, we see new attempts to suppress the votes of people of color across the country, along with some hopeful examples of citizens working to stop those practices.

Just last week, the Supreme Court allowed North Dakota to keep a voter ID law in place that requires voters to have a street address in order to vote. In declining to vacate a lower court’s decision, the Supreme Court is collaborating with the state government to make it more difficult for Native Americans — many of whom use post office boxes rather than street addresses — to cast their ballots (which, of course, all the non-native white political officials in North Dakota know). There is reason to believe that defeating Democratic incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, whose narrow 2012 election win was powered by strong support from the Native community, is a significant motivation for this law, which was not enacted until after she was elected. What a surprise.

In Kansas, one of the candidates in a tight governor’s race is Republican Kris Kobach, who has famously been one of the country’s leading proponents of voter suppression, which he attempts to cloak as fighting “voter fraud” and protecting “election integrity.” The truth, as I have stated before, bears repeating: Academic studies have shown that in-person voter fraud is exceedingly rare, to the point that any given person is more likely to be struck by lightning twice. Kobach is also Kansas’ secretary of state, which means he is in charge of that state’s elections while standing for election as its chief executive. Kobach became a national figure after being tapped by Trump to lead a voter-fraud commission that, among other things, was supposed to prove the president’s claim that millions of undocumented immigrants voted illegally in the 2016 election. This commission folded after less than a year without finding a single case of fraud. And lest we forget, Kobach has always been a leading opponent of immigration to the United States and has regularly used both implicit and explicit racism against immigrants of color. That white strategy I mentioned? Kobach is one of its chief architects.

Kobach’s situation is not even unique in 2018: Brian Kemp, the candidate in Georgia and its secretary of state, has a long-term record of purging Georgia voter rolls (1.4 million names removed since 2012), which disproportionately affects voters of color. And has come under intense scrutiny this week as 53,000 Georgians, again disproportionately black, have had their registrations frozen due to lacking an exact match between their applications and DMV records. We’re talking dropped hyphens or mistakenly transposed numbers in an address. While the 53,000 people can still vote if they bring proper identification to the polls, there’s a real fear that many may be discouraged from voting by having their registrations held up in this manner. It seems not unconnected that Kemp’s opponent would be the first black woman, state legislator Stacey Abrams, ever elected governor in U.S. history if she prevails. The evidence just abounds for their strategy of not letting demographic change ever change democracy.

Florida is one example where the tide of voter suppression may be turning and voting rights could make a major comeback. Florida has long been the nation’s most shameful example of the practice of permanently disenfranchising people convicted of felonies, with 1.6 million people currently barred from voting, despite having paid their debt to society and despite the “felonies” in question often being as minor as stealing something worth $300 or more, or a nonviolent drug offense. Since mass incarceration disproportionately affects people of color, the disenfranchisement of people convicted of felonies also disproportionately affects communities of color. The good news is that Amendment 4, which is on the ballot in Florida this November, would restore the rights of all those who have paid their debt to society except for those convicted of murder or violent sex offenses. Recent polling suggests it is overwhelmingly popular, with 71 percent of those polled in favor, which exceeds the 60 percent support it needs to be enacted.

The success of this ballot initiative would be a massive victory for the image of God, as it would be saying that in this country, we no longer permanently remove the right upon which all of our other rights depend. Some of the most prominent leaders of the movement to pass Amendment 4 are committed Christians whose involvement in and support from churches has been key to the movement’s success thus far. There’s some good news.

Research from PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and other groups has convincingly demonstrated that white racial anxiety and grievance was a primary driver of Donald Trump’s election. When you look at the efforts to disenfranchise voters of color across the country, the centrality of race and the extraordinary efforts of too many powerful white public officials to retain their hold on political power by any means necessary is not something we can ever look away from again. Instead, we need to look and lean into it as a matter of both faith and justice — and then overcome it, both with tangible, long-term efforts like Florida’s Amendment 4, and with overwhelming voter turnout by people of color and others who believe in the equal right of all God’s children to citizenship. Given the structural barriers that powerful whites keep putting up, these voters need the protection and assistance of both the legal and faith communities to exercise their franchise unimpeded. That’s why Sojourners is so proud to partner with the African American Clergy Network and others on our Lawyers and Collars initiative. I hope all of you will join us in this critical work of respecting and protecting the image of God in all of God’s children. Go to the polls on Nov. 6 to vote. Then go back to the polls with your collar on if you have one and protect everybody’s right to vote.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His new Audible spoken-word series, Jim Wallis In Conversation, is available now, as is his book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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"It Just Keeps Happening: Targeting the Image of God"
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