Democracy for Some?

Person voting
Person voting

Fearless is the word that comes to mind after a recent visit to Selma with 60 members of the African American Ministers Leadership Council (AAMLC) and African American Ministers In Action (AAMIA). Fearless were those who sat in, marched in, taught, prayed, would not be denied 50 years ago. They established the paradigm for what those of us today, who sadly are still in battles for many rights, but more specifically voting rights, must do.

Republican politicians who claim there is no need to restore the protections we lost two years ago when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) need not look any further than Alabama today to see why they are very wrong.

Alabama has a voter ID law requiring people to show government-issued identification in order to vote. But last week the state announced it was closing 31 driver’s license offices, including offices in all counties where Black residents comprise over three quarters of registered voters. In other words, the state is requiring that voters have ID to cast a ballot, and then taking away the places to get that ID - for Black communities in particular. If that doesn’t show that voting protections are still needed, I don’t know what does.

Despite this appalling development, Jeb Bush said yesterday that he doesn’t support reauthorizing the VRA, suggesting that there’s no longer a need for it.

No longer a need for it? The destructive changes in Alabama are exactly the kind of measures that the VRA was designed to protect against. For years, Alabama was one of the states covered by Section 5 of the Act, which required certain places with a history of voting discrimination to get all changes in voting procedures cleared by the federal government before they could take effect. That law stopped scores of voting changes from being implemented in Alabama before they could do any harm. But thanks to the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, that safeguard is gone. On the very same day the Shelby County Supreme Court ruling eviscerated the VRA, Alabama said it would start enforcing its voter ID law.

The fearless women and men in the same state that serves as a symbol of the advancement of voting rights, those Baby Boomers, must still fight with the Millennials to protect them. Like our tour guide last month, Joanne Bland, who in 1965 was an 11 year old member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, activists’ refusal to be discouraged from praying and marching in 1965 is still encouraging in 2015.  She and others were honored by thousands who marched and prayed this year on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, including President Obama, Congressman John Lewis, and countless faith and community leaders and activists. They remain the symbol of intergenerational strategic and sacrificial actions that must be taken still today to address and end ongoing racial discrimination in voting.

But it’s not just Alabama. In Mississippi our AAMLC members are seeing precincts closing in or near African American churches, forcing Black residents to travel to white communities to vote. In Florida, a state representative is talking about Republicans winning elections by maximizing the number of incarcerated African Americans in a district, framing the disenfranchisement of Black Americans as an opportunity for political gain. Since the 2010 elections, a whopping 21 states have put new laws in place that make it harder to vote.

Like those who were fearless in the past, we must be fearless today and make sure that all know the fundamental, inalienable right to cast a ballot is in danger still, especially for people of color. Our political system is built on the promise of democracy for all, not democracy for those who can afford to drive cross-state on a weekday to get an ID. How can GOP leaders and presidential candidates continue to insist with a straight face that there’s no need to restore protections for voters? I wish they could one day walk, march in our shoes, to feel the pain of a promise with unnecessary barriers, to try to register and vote.  In the meantime let’s be fearless!