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Restoring Voting Rights honors John Lewis

Rev. Irene Monroe

All Votes Matter!

Civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who died of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, spent his life advocating equal access to the ballot for all Americans. Lewis nearly lost his life on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when he attempted to lead a nonviolent voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery. He was beaten at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, resulting in a fractured skull.

To honor Lewis’ life and legacy, Democratic lawmakers want the 2019 Voting Rights Advancement Act he fought for passed, and to name it the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020. The bill would reverse the deleterious damage done by the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision that invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Since the passing of the 1965 Civil Rights Voting Act giving African Americans the ballot, the GOP has had ongoing tactics to suppress minority voting. Such old Jim Crow tactics like literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses have given way to these new tactics — random voter roll purging, changing polling locations, changing polling hours or eliminating early voting days, reducing the number of polling places, packing majority-minority districts, dividing minority districts and the notorious voter ID laws that disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters. They are all part and parcel of the Republican playbook.

In 2000, the outcome of the presidential race between Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Republican Texas Governor George W. Bush was decided in a recount of Florida ballots due to hanging chads. In predominantly Black voting precincts, which are overwhelmingly Democratic, it was reported that piles of ballots were left uncounted. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission reported that of ballots invalidated by Florida officials, 53 percent were cast by Black voters. The Florida vote was settled in Bush’s favor, winning him the presidency. His brother Jeb was governor at the time.

In 2013, by a 5-to-4 Republican-appointed majority, the U. S. Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder eviscerated Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Section 4 identified problematic voting precincts with shameful histories of racial discrimination. Not surprisingly, these precincts are predominantly GOP strongholds. The Court ruled that Section 4 of the VRA was outdated. Section 4 historically protected African Americans and other disenfranchised people of color. The ruling asserts a fictive post-racial premise that racial minorities, especially in the South, no longer confront discriminatory barriers voting, because Obama was president. At the time, the 1965 VRA applied to nine states, mostly in the South — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

While many of us would like to think voter suppression only happens in the South, let me disabuse you of the notion with the scores of counties and municipalities in the North, like in NYC, the Bronx, and my borough of Brooklyn that was covered in the 1965 VRA, too.

However, after the Shelby County v. Holder decision, North Carolina targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision,” since the Black vote increased by 51.1 percent in the state in 2000, and Blacks had a higher voter turnout with Obama on the ballot in both 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.

In 2018, the epic gubernatorial battle between Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams and Republican candidate Brian Kemp was a brazen example of how Republican “power grab” works in Georgia. Kemp, while running for governor, was Georgia’s secretary of state. As Georgia’s secretary of state, Kemp oversaw Georgia’s elections and was responsible for the “exact match” policy. The “exact match” policy states that a voter application must “exactly match” their social security or driver’s license information. According to the Associated Press, 53,000 applications were put on hold, of which 70% were Black voters.

Last year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voiced opposition to making Election Day a federal holiday. However, allowing American voters a more relaxed and stress-free trip to their voting precincts should be a no-brainer. And, H.R.1, the “For the People Act of 2019” would do just that. He mocked the legislation as the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.”

Lewis said, “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” To honor John Lewis, “good trouble” this November election would be to vote out our present Republican thugocracy. As voters, we don’t have to capitulate to the powers that be, because the power of the people is greater than the people in power.

Irene Monroe is a theologian and syndicated columnist.

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