In the 2016 election, voter restrictions, intimidation, and suppression contributed to a significant decline in the voter participation rate of African Americans. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, states are now free to adopt voting laws that can have an adverse impact on minority voters, including laws that eliminate polling places, move them to less accessible locations, or reduce the hours they are open. These laws also allow states to tighten voter ID requirements and reduce early voting and Sunday voting, which are popular among minority voters in certain regions. According to the Brennan Center, from 2010 to 2018, 23 states have enacted tougher voter registration or hyper-partisan gerrymandering. Blatant voter suppression, intimidation, and harassment — aimed at suppressing the black and minority vote — are all expected to increase in the upcoming midterm elections.
That is why Sojourners and the Skinner Leadership Institute have joined forces to launch Lawyers and Collars, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, multiracial, faith-inspired voter protection effort in partnership with The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Brennan Center for Justice, and other faith-based and civic engagement organizations.
I grew up mesmerized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) and its Freedom Summer campaign. In a climate of violence and intimidation, the campaign helped to register thousands of disenfranchised African Americans across the South as they boldly pushed to secure voter protections. The 2014 film Selma captures a climactic piece of the larger struggle for voting rights when marchers are brutalized while trying to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge on a day referred to as “Bloody Sunday.”
But too often we fail to recognize that history has a way of repeating itself.
Jim Crow is like a mutating gene that continues to show up in both covert and overt tactics to suppress the vote of minority populations, most acutely within the black community. This is nothing new. The right to vote has been deeply contested since the founding of our nation. More stringent voter ID laws and the purging of voting rosters simply represent contemporary versions of poll taxes and literacy tests.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the Museum of African-American History and Culture for the second time. On my first visit, I toured the museum with my whole family, including my 5- and 7-year-old sons; it was a powerful experience. But this time around, I was able to spend much more time immersing myself in the narrative arc of the museum. The timeless words of Frederick Douglass reverberate across the museum: “There is no progress without struggle.” Sadly, as the ongoing struggle for voting rights proves, progress can be fragile and fleeting and must be continually defended. I believe that congregations are uniquely positioned to carry on the struggle to protect every vote and every voter.
The purpose of Lawyers and Collars is to equip and empower pastors and local church leaders to work alongside lawyers to protect vulnerable citizens at voting precincts. Together, we can provide a legal and moral presence against voter suppression, intimidation, and harassment that are expected to rise in the 2018 midterm elections. The campaign welcomes the involvement of imams, rabbis, and other faith leaders.
This initiative is rooted and motivated by our understanding and commitment to imago dei, that every person is made in the image of God, and this confers upon each of us equal worth and dignity. Protecting the right to vote affirms the divine image and inherent value of all of God’s children. In this theological context, nothing diminishes the rule of law and our precious democracy more than voter suppression and efforts to diminish the impact of vulnerable voters.
Many congregations and faith communities have traditionally been engaged in voter registration and mobilization efforts; Lawyers and Collars seeks to complement these efforts by adding a critical emphasis on voter protection. The initiative will be working hand in hand with the Get Out The Vote Sunday, which represents the sister campaign to Voters and Collars.
Through the campaign, faith leaders dressed in their clerical attire will serve alongside voter protection lawyers, providing the legal and moral security needed to enable all citizens to exercise their right to vote. The project will train faith leaders in effective strategies to protect voters from unnecessary restrictions, intimidation, and voter suppression. Lawyers will be equipped to take immediate legal action when individuals are refused the right to vote.
The proposed Lawyers and Collars program will have site coordinators, volunteer voter educators, and partner-attorneys, who will provide voter education materials and legal advice. Lawyers and Collars volunteers will be stationed at polling sites that are anticipated to have a higher probability for intimidation or suppression. An essential part of the Lawyers and Collars program will be "We Are Watching" meetings. Faith leaders will meet with secretaries of state and other election officials to inform them that they will be monitoring any election-related changes to prevent discriminatory practices and ensure a fair election process.
Today we are launching the Lawyers and Collars website and toolkit. We hope that you will share this campaign with your pastor and church and prayerfully consider joining us in protecting every vote, which is a matter of faith and Christian discipleship.