Can you imagine showing up at your polling place on Election Day and being turned away because you lacked the proper ID? Or thinking that you are registered, only to find out that your name has been purged from the voting roll? Or imagine showing up only to find out that your polling place was unexpectedly moved to a new, distant location. Imagine arriving between kid pick-ups with only an hour to spare and because there are only a few voting machines, you are faced with a 4-hour line that snakes around the building. Imagine being faced with deciding whether to take a half day off of work in order to vote, a hit to your paycheck that you can’t afford. While these scenarios may seem foreign to many of us, for far too many citizens of color, these barriers represent the alarming and increasingly real lived experience of voter suppression. These insidious tactics constitute a deliberate attempt to derail and delay the impacts of our nation’s quickly changing demography from transforming our democracy.
According to our partner the Brennan Center for Justice, barriers like those described, “which received a boost when the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, have kept significant numbers of eligible voters from the polls, hitting all Americans, but placing special burdens on racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters.”
These and the many other voter suppression tactics jeopardize the very legitimacy of the 2020 election. They also represent an assault on human dignity and imago dei, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly put it, “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind — it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact — I can only submit to the edict of others.”
In the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections, Sojourners joined forces with the Skinner Leadership Institute and the African-American Clergy Network to launch the Lawyers and Collars program, which is an integral part of a longer standing voter engagement program called Turnout Sunday. The goal of the program is to ensure that all citizens, who are made in the very image of God, can exercise their right to vote in a free and fair election. Working with a range of local and national partners, together in 2018 we reached over 5 million faith leaders and activists with tools to combat voter suppression efforts and mobilized nearly 1,000 churches to engage in voter protection, education, and Get Out the Vote efforts. And since we expect voter suppression efforts to be even more sophisticated and widespread in 2020, we are scaling up our efforts. Now is the time to exercise our civic discipleship and ensure that every American citizen, each made in the image of God, is able to vote in a free and fair election. To receive updates and be plugged into our ongoing election-oriented work, sign up for SojoAction.
The integrity and credibility of our democratic system is predicated on at least some semblance of free and fair elections. But the right to vote has been a deeply contested one throughout our nation’s history. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, this sacred right was finally extended to all American citizens. Through the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act by declaring section 5 — which required states with a history of voter suppression pre-clear any changes to their voting systems — unconstitutional, creating open season for voter suppression.
I’m increasingly fearful that voter suppression tactics that were on display in 2016 and 2018 will be on steroids in 2020, directly threatening the credibility and integrity of the outcome. We aren’t accustomed to talking in these stark terms, but if enough voters are intimidated or discouraged from voting, and if enough people of color are prevented from exercising their right to vote, then it is imperative that we sound the alarm and declare the election itself has been tampered with or stolen. This threat is not hyperbole or alarmist, particularly in light of what we know took place in recent election cycles and what is already underway in key states around the country.
This is something that Stacey Abrams has direct experience with. While I believe she is the rightful governor of Georgia, due to voter suppression in the state in 2018, she was denied victory. Despite helping to galvanize the largest voter turnout in Georgia’s history Abrams lost by 50,000 votes to the former Attorney General Brian Kemp. This meant she was up against the man who acted as “the umpire, the contestant, and the scorekeeper.”
Fortunately, she has refused to give up and has taken her message of voter protection nationwide through Fair Fight. Abrams electrified those of us who were able to attend this week’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, which brought together over 1,000 African-American faith leaders and allies to nurture, sustain, and mobilize the African-American faith community to address critical needs of human rights and social justice. Abrams spoke passionately about the three principal forms of voter suppression, which include whether people can register and stay registered, whether they can get access to the ballot, and whether their ballot is counted — outlining all of the ways that administrative rules and bureaucratic tricks can suppress the vote.
We see such efforts in Florida, where after the voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state constitution to return voting rights to more than 1 million formerly incarcerated people, the GOP legislature and new governor, Ron DeSantis, tried to reverse it by mandating that ex-felons pay all fines and fees owed to the court first, which many have rightly described as a modern-day poll tax reminiscent of the Jim Crow era. Fortunately, just this week an appeals court ruled that this law is unconstitutional. But we see other efforts throughout the U.S. in the form of voter ID laws, consolidating polling places, and even at the federal level, in attempting to alter Census counting, which is another way to erase minority voices. As Abrams pointed out in her remarks, the Census undergirds our democracy “by determining how $1.7 trillion of federal funding is allocated across 316 federal programs.”
Abrams provocatively challenged us to realize that in so many cases voter suppression takes place because we don’t show up in the right spaces and places to fight for our rights. She said that if,“I accepted other people’s definition of victory I would never win.”
I have always been inspired by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), particularly their 1964 Freedom Summer campaign, which even in the face of incredible violence and brutality, registered thousands of blacks in Mississippi. More than 700 white activists joined African Americans in the campaign because they believed that if any American is denied the right to vote, then we are all denied the right to vote. They were willing to put their very lives at risk because denying the right to vote represented a stain on our democracy and an assault on human dignity. Fortunately we don’t face the same degree of risks today. But ensuring a free and fair election will take vigilance. It will take a much greater degree of solidarity and sacrifice so that we can prevent voter suppression, and in its wake, be willing to stand up, speak out, and offer moral resistance if necessary. When more eligible voters show up and can fully participate, our democracy is both better and healthier. In this perilous moment, I hope and pray that you will join us in embracing this imago dei imperative.