“Come on, come on, come on! Don’t you want to vote? … Yes, I’m gonna vote … for justice!” was the song that closed out a Zoom rally with hundreds of poor and low-income people, moral leaders, clergy, activists, and advocates who are part of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Yara Allen, co-director of theomusicology and movement arts for the Poor People’s Campaign, led the song as participants registered to text bank five million poor and low-propensity voters before the midterms in order to enliven and enlarge the electorate of low-income voters.
I serve as the national co-chair (alongside Rev. William J. Barber II) of the Poor People’s Campaign. We believe the issues most important to the daily lives of the majority of people in this country must be on the ballot this fall. After all, policy researchers have shown just how much people are hurting as federal minimum wages have not been raised since 2009, health care has not been significantly expanded after the worst public health crisis in a century, and economic supports that began during the COVID-19 pandemic — like stimulus checks, the Child Tax Credit and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — have all expired. These cuts are thrusting millions of people, including four million children, back below the poverty line.
The justice issues that need to be prioritized: Addressing climate disasters, establishing programs of social uplift, defending the rights of vulnerable populations, protecting Indigenous people and their lands, and expanding voting rights.
By participating in these midterms and future elections, we, the people, have the power to transform this society from the bottom up.
According to data collected by The Poor People’s Campaign from the 2020 elections, over 50 million poor and low-income voters cast a ballot in the presidential contest which amounted to nearly one-third of all the votes in that election. These voters accounted for even higher percentages in key battleground states like Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina where poor and low-income voters turned out in significant numbers to vote for living wages, debt relief, and economic stimulus.
A Poor People’s Campaign study from 2018, written by Columbia assistant professor of social work Rob Paul Hartley, discovered that if between 1 and 19 percent more poor and low-income people participated in elections in 16 key states, they would have the power to shift election outcomes and put into office politicians that prioritized the livelihoods of poor people. But in 2020, there were 22 million poor and low-income eligible voters who left their vote on the table.
Since 2020, a rolling coup of voter suppression laws has left 55 million voters living in states with restrictions on who, how, when, and where people can vote. Also alarming are reports that the majority of Republican candidates in the midterms “deny or question” the 2020 election results. At times, it feels as though the loudest political opinions are coming from people who want to suppress the vote or peddle lies about the 2020 election. But when poor and low-income people, alongside clergy, moral leaders, and activists vote for an agenda that promotes human rights and dignity, we have the power to make a difference.
As a biblical scholar, I look to our sacred texts to hear what they say about the political power of the people. In the Exodus, the Hebrew people march out of Egypt — liberated from their slavery. They reject the oppression and mistreatment by Pharoah and his empire. Leviticus and Deuteronomy establish policies and procedures to lift up vulnerable people so that justice is not left to the whims of ruling authorities but passed down from generation to generation, centering the needs of the people. The prophets cry out to God in direct warnings and protests to those with power and wealth to “do justice” (Micah 6), “not shed innocent blood” (Jeremiah 23), “hate evil and love good” (Amos 5), and “stop depriving the poor of their rights” (Isaiah 10).
Perhaps my favorite Bible lesson on the agency of the vulnerable comes from the gospel of Mark, chapter 5. Mark tells a story of a woman with a flow of blood who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years. She is dispossessed, having spent what little she had on doctors who could not make her well, but she has not given up. As her condition worsens, the woman hears about someone with the power to heal. She joins the crowd around Jesus, reaches out, touches him, and makes him heal and hear her.
Even when those in the crowd pay her little attention, the woman with the flow of blood takes initiative and asserts her power. As she takes action, she is criticized for not waiting her turn and pushing her agenda, for not letting the daughter of Jairus, a politically and economically influential man, be healed first. But Jesus stops what he is doing, speaks directly to the woman, and proclaims, in verse 34, that her faith has made her well. Jesus celebrates the intervention of this woman and offers a lesson for those who may be marginalized socially, politically, and economically but still make their voices heard.
Although this story takes place in a different time and place, the woman’s determination, persistence, and faith in her own healing speak to our context today. It gives those excluded and exploited the hope that they, like the hemorrhaging woman, have the power to demand change.
The woman’s actions in Mark 5 remind me of civil rights, anti-poverty, and disability rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer who would not concede Christianity and the Bible to those who justified racism, segregation, mistreatment, and violence while claiming Christianity. Instead, Hamer deeply believed in the power of poor and low-income people to change society. She urged people to organize and mobilize saying, “You can pray until you faint, but unless you get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.”
In this election season, let us join Hamer, the hemorrhaging woman, and all the vulnerable people throughout history who have exercised their agency as we pray with our hands and feet, marching for justice and casting our ballots. Yes, in such a time as this, we must march to the polls and vote to heal the soul of our democracy and nation. May all with ears to hear join!