John Lewis, the late U.S. Representative from Georgia, once said, “The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.”
For most of his life, Lewis got into “good trouble,” advocating for the voting rights of millions of Americans.
During the height of Jim Crow, Lewis and his fellow Freedom Riders traveled through the south, registering Black voters and pressuring the Johnson Administration to pass a voting rights bill.
Because of their determination and sacrifices, such as being beaten on Bloody Sunday near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, millions of new voters were able to cast their ballots when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.
Empowering citizens to exercise their voting rights is foundational in maintaining a healthy and vibrant democracy. However, the United States has often struggled with the notion that every citizen should have the right to exercise their vote.
Voting rights have been a contentious battle between freedom and oppression. Here is a brief history:
1789: The U.S. Constitution granted states the power to set voting parameters, most often setting white male property owners as the only citizens allowed to cast a vote.
1820s: Most states dropped the requirement for property ownership but maintained white male tax-paying dominance.
1828: Maryland is the last state to remove religious restrictions for voters, giving voting rights to Jews.
1867: All native-born Americans were granted citizenship but not the right to vote. The exception was Native Americans who were not granted citizenship until 1887.
1867-1870: The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents states from denying citizens the right to vote on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Quickly following, however, Southern states passed Jim Crow laws, hindering African Americans and poor white citizens from voting through poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and other restrictions. Under Jim Crow, only 3% of Blacks were registered to vote in the south.
1910-1920: By the incredible advocacy of women and a number of states enacting voting rights for women, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920 provided women voting rights. However, Black women remained impeded from voting.
1924: Native Americans were granted voting rights through the Indian Citizenship Act, even though some states kept them from voting until 1948.
1965: For the entire time under Jim Crow, African American advocates fought and sacrificed for voting rights. The Voting Rights of 1965 helped correct discriminating laws and practices.
1965-2020: A number of states have attempted to make it more difficult to vote by implementing voter ID laws, reducing funding for polling places, limiting mail-in and absentee voting, and restricting early voting.
2021: Thirty-three states are actively considering legislation limiting opportunities for citizens to exercise their right to vote. For example, Georgia and Iowa recently passed legislation making it more difficult to vote. These laws will have a direct effect on lower-income citizens and minority communities.
In Iowa, early voting was reduced from 29 days to 20 days. Iowans will also have less time to cast their ballots on election day, as polls will now close an entire hour earlier. This decision could hinder thousands of voters who work overtime or run late from picking children up at daycare or dropping them off at evening activities. Other restrictions make it more difficult to cast an absentee ballot.
In Georgia, the bill will reduce the availability of absentee voting, restricting it to voters who are 65 and older, who have a physical disability or who will be out of town. Voter ID components of the law will make it a requirement to provide a driver’s license number, state ID number or other identification.
Voting rights advocates in Georgia point out how the bill unfairly targets Black communities, especially efforts by Black churches in their “Souls to the Polls” Sundays. Black churches have been working hard to get their communities to engage and participate in elections. By eliminating Sunday voting, the law will pretty much kill the program as designed and intended.
Proponents of such legislation argue that they are only attempting to keep the integrity of elections intact. These lawmakers continue to express concern about 2020 voting irregularities, even though such allegations have been declared unfounded numerous times by election officials and courts.
Critics point out that the laws unfairly target minority and lower-income communities in an attempt to reduce voter turnout. By limiting access and placing more stringent requirements to vote, many Black leaders fear a return to Jim Crow standards of voting requirements.
Voting laws that target Black communities and discourage Black turnout spit on the grave of John Lewis and many others who spent their lives working to ensure future generations would not fear Jim Crow and voter suppression. They dreamed of the day when every Black citizen could feel their vote was welcomed and respected.
Unfortunately, there are those who still hold to the philosophy of the late political strategist Paul Weyrich who honestly and infamously declared, “They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote.”
“Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now,” he said. “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Put simply, those whose goal is only to retain power and control make it harder to vote. Those whose goal is to ensure every citizen can have their voice heard through the ballot box make it easier to vote. The latter can be done securely.
If there were one sign to gauge the health of our democracy, then we need not look any further than voting rights.
The United States has always been at its best when the country provides voting rights to more citizens and empowers them to exercise that right. We are a healthier democracy and a more perfect union when more citizens are involved and engaged.
As people of good faith, we must remember the life, words and legacy of John Lewis. We must get in the way of injustices by stepping up and speaking out.
Lewis reminded us, “Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society. Why? Because human beings are the most dynamic link to the divine on this planet.”
Therefore, let the Beloved Community continue to do the work of the Lord within this world. Let us make certain the most vulnerable, the poor, the sick, the marginalized and the oppressed are represented and heard.
In a democratic republic like the United States, that means advocating for the voting rights of all citizens and giving more citizens the opportunity to vote.
CEO of Good Faith Media.