I will probably never forget the pain in my mother’s voice in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Shelby County v. Holder case.
Their ruling gutted two significant provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation which she had fought hard for and put her body on the line to get passed during the civil rights movement.
The Supreme Court struck down provisions that required certain states and local governments to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices and contained the coverage formula that determined which jurisdictions were subject to preclearance based on their histories of discrimination in voting.
In doing so, it became open season on voting and democracy in our nation. For my mother, it meant that all the organizing and sacrifices that had been made and the hard-fought battles for freedom and justice in America were being nullified.
“I can’t believe we have to go through this again,” I remember her saying, as she reflected on sitting in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter while she was a college student in Columbia, South Carolina.
My grandparents had set the example for her by helping others in the backcountry of South Carolina to fill out the forms to be able to vote. The KKK burned a cross out in front of their lawn for their efforts.
For many like my mother, this renewed struggle for voting rights feels like the worst kind of déjà vu.
American democracy is in peril and the right to vote is hanging in the balance.
Since the 2020 election, which saw record voter turnout, 19 states have passed laws that will restrict voters from being able to participate in democracy, especially African Americans, people with disabilities and other vulnerable communities.
And the Brennan Center reports that as of mid-January this year, “legislators in at least 27 states have introduced, pre-filed, or carried over 250 bills with restrictive [voting] provisions.”
Unsurprisingly, many of the restrictions are in areas that would be considered swing states. In places like Georgia, lawmakers even made it illegal to hand out water to people standing in long lines waiting to vote.
In 2018, I witnessed firsthand the long lines in an area heavily populated by Black voters. People stood in lines for upwards of eight hours in Atlanta and surrounding counties, just to vote.
Organizers helped to alleviate the strain on voters waiting in long lines by handing out water, fruit and other snacks. This was particularly helpful for the elderly and those in line with young children.
By passing legislation to make it illegal to offer this kind of assistance while simultaneously making it harder to vote, Georgia lawmakers, and similar efforts around the country, are sending a loud and resounding message that during this Jim Crow 2.0 era, they will go to any lengths to suppress the votes of those who don’t agree with their policies — even toppling democracy.
Indeed, this nation’s refusal to deal with racism and white supremacy, what Jim Wallis and others have called America’s original sin, has us on the brink of losing the fundamental right to vote and sliding toward authoritarianism.
To be clear, this is about power – both real and perceived. A significant part of the electorate, and those from one political party in particular, are afraid that if people are allowed to vote unhindered, especially African Americans, they will no longer be able to win elections and will lose power.
The voracity and widespread nature of these voter-suppression tactics since 2020 are reminiscent of a bygone era of poll taxes and jelly bean tests, where before being allowed to cast their ballots, Black voters had to guess how many jelly beans were in a jar.
Today, we have small numbers of polling places in heavily populated areas, shortened hours for voting, barriers to registering and casting ballots and, in some locations, voter rolls being purged without cause or timely notification so that errors cannot be corrected in time to re-register.
These are all intimidation methods to deter people from being able to exercise what in a democracy is almost sacred – the right to cast our ballots and vote for who we want to represent us.
After months of activism on voting rights, in January, the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act did not have enough support to be filibuster proof and pass in the U.S. Senate.
This lack of action is an assault on American democracy, as its passage would protect the right to vote, including provisions to prevent state lawmakers from overturning the results of elections in which they don’t like the outcome.
As a Christian, I believe it is also an affront to the God-given dignity of all people, who are created in God’s image. In my faith tradition, our scriptures teach us that we should not just look out for our own interests but also for the interests of others.
It is a moral imperative for us to fight these renewed efforts at voter suppression.
We must be unmoved in our resolve to continue to advocate for every citizen to be able to cast their ballots without obstruction, obstacles, hindrances, intimidation or unnecessary burdens.
Instead, we must intensify our efforts until someday is today and voter suppression is a past memory rather than a present-day reality.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week calling attention to Black History Month. The previous articles in the series are:
Democracy Remains a Dream, Voting Rights a Nightmare | Starlette Thomas
Defending the Vote for All Citizens | Jeffrey Haggray
Chief Operating Officer with the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (or National Council of Churches USA)