Fifty-five years ago, Black people in the South were finally given some hope. Hope that our communities would be seen, our bodies would be protected, and our votes would be counted — because the Voting Rights Act was law.
Fifty-five years later, the law Rep. John Lewis and so many others shed blood for and spent their lives defending has been trampled over by the Supreme Court and by the very state legislatures we serve in: Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina.
Our nation should be honoring the legacy of John Lewis and the demands of anti-racist protesters in our streets with a new and expansive VRA. Our states should be adapting already modern and well-run election systems to ensure every American voter — Black, white or brown — has a safe option to vote this November without fearing for their health. Instead, the legislatures of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and many of our neighbors are ground zero for modern-day voter suppression.
As state lawmakers and as Black women, we have long been on the front lines of the fight for civil and economic freedom in the South. Today, we are raising the alarm and shedding light on the negligence, obstruction and inhumanity we have faced in our attempts to defend and build on the promise of the Voting Rights Act.
The Supreme Court defanged the VRA in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision and triggered a new wave of voter suppression laws across the South. Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina were all states that, prior to Shelby, had to clear any proposed changes to voting laws with the federal government. This system, known as “preclearance,” prevented countless discriminatory voting practices from taking effect. Shelby ended preclearance, and conservatives in our legislatures did not hesitate to act.
South Carolina and Mississippi quickly implemented voter identification laws previously blocked by the federal government because of their discriminatory impact on Black voters. Georgia executed its notorious “exact match” program (also originally blocked by preclearance), which threatened the voter registration status of 51,000 people in 2018 — 80 percent of whom were Black and brown. Georgia and Mississippi closed scores of polling places in communities of color without proper oversight. Those are just a few examples of the many new voting barriers our communities have contended with since Shelby.
But another voter suppression strategy has taken hold in Southern legislatures, which is just as malicious: the suppression of new ideas and a dogged resistance to move our elections into the 21st century — even during a pandemic.
We three have sponsored or supported legislation countless times to reduce barriers to voting, championing proposals like no-excuse absentee voting, same-day voter registration, early voting and rights restoration for people who have served time. And we have been silenced at every turn. The conservatives who control our legislatures systematically block any legislation to advance voting access in big or small ways, even as our states lag dramatically behind the nation. It’s 2020 and yet in Mississippi, you still cannot register to vote online or vote early. It is the only state in the nation that offers neither option and unsurprisingly ranks 47th in voter turnout. In Georgia and South Carolina, conservative lawmakers will not even grant committee hearings or allow public testimony on pro-voter legislation.
It’s clear that in majority white, conservative legislatures, there is little motivation to address unequal access to voting.
And now, as we face a public health threat unlike any in our lives, Southern legislatures and governors have stood in the way of commonsense changes to voting systems that other states are making readily. It should not take lawsuits to compel South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas to expand absentee voting. Black voters in Georgia should not have to wait in hours-long lines because there aren’t enough polling locations in their neighborhoods. Mississippi voters shouldn’t be prohibited from voting early or registering online because of antiquated laws. Voters across the South, especially in Black communities devastated by COVID-19, should not be forced to choose between their health and their vote as the rest of the country moves forward. And yet, conservative leaders continue to obstruct change and reverse progress. (See Georgia, where the legislature just tried to bar election officials from mailing out absentee voter applications, or South Carolina, where legislative leaders have refused to convene to consider the State Election Commission’s recommendations for safe voting.)
Though we face an uphill battle, we hold onto the hope seeded 55 years ago and call for partnership in a renewed struggle for expanded voting rights. We urge our fellow Southern legislators to accept this call to action and make sure that voting is safe, accessible and equitable. We ask Congress to get past partisan divides and pass a stronger Voting Rights Act to overturn the damage done by Shelby. Perhaps most importantly, we ask every activist and eligible voter in the South to believe in our democracy, organize and vote.
Nikema Williams was elected to the Georgia State Senate in 2018 and has been appointed by the Democratic Party of Georgia to stand for John Lewis’ congressional seat in the 2020 general election. Zakiya Summers was elected to the Mississippi State House in 2020 and was formerly director of communications and advocacy for the ACLU of Mississippi. Gilda Cobb-Hunter is the longest-serving member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and also serves as the president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.
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