In this centennial year of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women in the United States the right to vote, we often hear stories of suffrage movement leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony. But how often do we hear the stories of Mary Church Terrell, Susette LaFlesche Tibbles, Jovita Ivar or Mabel Ping-Hua Lee? Each one of these women of color made a major contribution to the struggle to obtain voting rights for women, but their role has largely been removed from historical accounts.
Even after the 19th Amendment was ratified, it didn’t give voting rights to Native Americans, who were granted citizenship in 1924 but not the right to vote, or many Asian Americans, who wouldn’t receive full voting rights until 1952. Black Americans still faced poll taxes and literacy tests at the polls, not to mention the threat of violence, necessitating the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed the discriminatory practices that were preventing people of color from voting.
More than five decades later, the struggle to fully enfranchise people of color and to consistently implement the Voting Rights Act continues. In 2013, the Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, ruled against two key provisions of the act: Section 5, which requires that states with a history of disenfranchising voters receive preclearance from the Federal Government to change voting practices and laws, and Section 4(b), which contains the formula that determines which jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory practices are subject to Article 5.
Why should access to voting concern us?
The Reverend William J. Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, in his testimony to the U.S. Congress on Ash Wednesday of this year, stated, “We declare that voter oppression is a sin…To suppress the vote is to suggest that you have entered a God Space and you can determine other peoples’ reality and to suppress the vote is to suggest that other people do not have the same imago Dei, the image of God in you. Suppressing the vote is a form of political and theological idolatry and sin, and it has no place in this democracy.” (February 26, 2020, testimony to House Oversight Committee)
The 2007 document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States, recognizes that “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.” Furthermore, the Bishops state in their Call to Family Community and Participation, which is rooted in Gospel values, “We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.”
The 2020 U.S. presidential election is taking place in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately impacted communities of color and those who are economically poor. With the elimination or downsizing of voting places, due to fears of spreading the disease, many more voters this year will rely on mail-in ballots than ever before.
Yet we have witnessed relentless attempts by the president to create doubt in the electoral process, specifically in the validity of mail-in ballots. Additionally, the functioning and credibility of the U.S. Postal Service have been undermined so as to cast further doubt on the legitimacy of the election and disenfranchise voters who depend on the mail in order to vote.
For many Native Americans and Alaska Natives who live in rural areas, vote by mail is not a viable option, either because of distance to the post office, unreliable or nonexistent transportation, bad roads, lack of a fixed address, language barriers or historical mistrust of the mail system. In-person voting is often preferred, but the pandemic makes that more difficult than in a typical year and potentially dangerous, as well.
What can you do to help?
Be informed about your state and local voting laws. Deadlines for registering to vote or for requesting an absentee ballot are often hard to find in dense text. Find your information and share it with neighbors, families and friends. Go to www.vote.org to find out if you are registered to vote and how to safely do so in your state.
Sign up to be a nonpartisan election protection volunteer. Connect with one of these nonprofit, nonpartisan groups to see who is organizing volunteers in your area.
- Protect the Vote – Get involved from your home or in person to help protect the vote leading up to and on Election Day.
- VoteRiders – Make calls, send texts or mail letters to assist voters in obtaining the necessary documents needed to vote, or answer voter questions.
- The American Constitution Society – Lawyers and law students are needed to offer volunteer assistance to expand voting rights.
Pray! Ask God for strength and courage for all those exercising their right to vote and for those working to provide assistance for voters who encounter obstacles on Election Day.
We are invited as Christians to actively practice the values that the Gospels teach us. The sentiment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter, remains true. Let us work together to build God’s Kingdom as we encourage and enable our brothers and sisters to participate in our country’s democracy by safely and without fear exercising the right to vote.