Over the past two months the Kairos Center, as part of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, has helped to organize a series of Poor People’s Hearings in states around the country. Testifiers have been speaking to their experiences facing systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism, the war economy and the distorted moral narrative of Christian nationalism. They connected these experiences to the demands of the Campaign and the revolution of values we are organizing for across dozens of states.
One recurrent theme at the hearings has been increased attacks on voting rights and ongoing voter suppression efforts across the country. As we approach the 2018 midterm election, the Kairos Center has compiled testimonies on the many forms of voter suppression that millions of people are facing.
There are, in fact, fewer voting rights today than there were 50 years ago when the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed. Since 2010, 23 states have passed racist voter suppression laws, including racist gerrymandering and redistricting laws that make it harder to register, reduced early voting days and hours, purging voter rolls, and more restrictive voter ID laws. Following the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case, which gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, 14 states had new voting restrictions in place before the 2016 Presidential election and there were 868 fewer polling places across the country.
While these laws have disproportionately targeted Black people at least 17 states saw voter suppression cases targeting American Indian and Alaskan Native voters in 2016.
Further, there are nearly 20 million immigrants in this country who cannot vote. Of the approximately 11.09 million undocumented immigrants in this country (as of 2014) at least 8.5 million cannot vote. There are also 11.9 million immigrants with green cards, 76% are over the age of 18, which adds to another 9.44 million immigrants who cannot vote.
In addition, 6.1 million people have been disenfranchised due to felony convictions, including one in 13 Black adults.
Below are some of what we have heard from people struggling against these immoral and undemocratic conditions across the country.
I live in a community … where the youth are coming into adulthood with PTSD rates that rival the rates of veterans coming home from war. I was one of those youth, I was separated from my mother as a child due to her drug usage caused by poverty. I spent most of my youth as a ward of the state in and out of juvenile detention centers. At the age of 18 I was sent to prison for five years only to get out a disenfranchised citizen. After almost 15 years I’m still a disenfranchised citizen who can legally be discriminated against by employers, welfare programs, attorneys and landlords.
—Bo Williams, Mobile, AL
Dodge City has a population of nearly 30,000 people and 14,000 registered voters. Those voters have just one polling place and it is located in one of the few affluent and white areas of town, making it the most burdened polling location in Kansas … This is what happens when democracy is left in the hands of those who simply don’t care about the rights of their neighbors.
As I go to vote for the first time this November, I see clearly this system is far from fixed. A man by the name of Kris Kobach is running on a platform of hatred, pulling our state into the past rather than moving it forward into the future. His voter suppression policy is well known and overtly threatens people of color and poverty stricken communities. If he were really worried about stopping voter fraud, he would allow the very best thing to fight that, and he’d help increase turnout at the same time — Election Day registration. There is nothing more secure than turning in your registration, ID and ballot, in person, to an election official. Seventeen states — including Colorado, Iowa, Montana, and Idaho — have this in place. We could, too, and it would increase Kansans having access to their democracy by tens of thousands.
—Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, Dodge City, KS
Kansas City, Missouri
For a long time I felt guilt and shame as a mother, because I wasn’t able to provide for my kids. I was desperate to give my kids everything they needed, and also make my guilt go away. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I started to sell drugs, and spent many a day and night walking up and down the streets trying to provide for my kids. But I could never make ends meet. One day I unknowingly sold drugs to an undercover cop. I was convicted of a felony drug charge, which consisted of 5 to 10 years in prison, or 4 months in Vandalia Missouri Women’s Correctional Facility and 3 years of probation. I know selling drugs is illegal, but I also know the crime I was convicted of is the crime of being poor … After my conviction they told me I could never vote again. But after talking with Rev. Rodney and doing my research, I realized after I got off parole I could vote again. When I went to my parole office to ask about getting the paperwork signed to reinstate my voting rights, he acted like he didn’t know what I was talking about.
I know that I must vote because the same people who pass laws that keep wages so low that I can’t support my kids, also pass the laws that deny us healthcare, and the laws that lock us up for trying to survive, and the laws that continue to strip us of our constitutional right to vote. So despite these efforts to keep me silent, I will speak out, and I will vote. I will not be silent anymore.
—Quiahnya Walker Dillon
Little Rock, Arkansas
I was incarcerated in 1999 by the Arkansas Department of Corrections and upon my release in 2006 I found myself faced with a lifetime list of what I call “My I can’t stipulations.” For instance:
a) I can’t associate with certain persons.
b) I can’t enter certain establishments
c) I can’t leave the state without “my slave papers.”
d) I can’t marry, buy a car or make any large purchases without first obtaining permission.
e) But my greatest “I can’t” is that I can’t vote until my entire term limit has been served or I receive a pardon … people have come up with the terminology “returning citizen” and I do not, will not and cannot identify as a citizen of these United States and I’m daily reminded of this as I look into the faces of those who are holding political offices in which I had no voice. Thousands like myself have been denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction but this does not alleviate us from paying taxes to a state or country where we also have no elected representation … I believe I should not be taxed until I have a voice, a political voice, within this government or the government needs to immediately cease all taxes being imposed upon me and the thousands who cannot vote due to the current situation of probation, parole, or being currently incarcerated.
My name is Carl Fields and I am an ex-incarcerated person. In my new life, I am a Program Manager for a day shelter here in town; a Community Organizer for formerly incarcerated people and allies; and I am an almost-fully restored citizen … Whatever you may think of prisons, they were and still are a social experiment. And they are failing, badly. We think of a returning citizen, a returning person, as having paid their dues so now they can come and try to rebuild their lives if they so choose. I came home and nothing was further from the truth!
After being gone for 15 years, 10 months, getting the wrong information from several prison social workers, and being told that I’d “probably” be back because that’s how it works, I was furious, excited and fearful! And wouldn’t you know it, I hadn’t quote “paid my dues” yet, and had many more indignities to endure. I am on extended supervision until the year 2033 … Which means that I haven’t voted since I was 20 and won’t be able to do so again until I’m well into my 50s! Couple that with the fact that WI state has an African American population of about 6 percent, but a black prison population of over 40 percent … you can quickly get a picture of Black men and women never having a chance to decide who the city’s Alder or school board member or Mayor might be! Let alone running to hold the office of those positions.
Greensboro, North Carolina
My own campus, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, has become a prominent victim of voter disenfranchisement, garnering local and even national media attention. The largest public historically black university in the nation, now enrolling over 12,000 students, was divided into two congressional districts, right here in Greensboro. The dilution of our voting strength has forced some students to vote on campus in District 13, while the other half of campus votes off-campus in District 6.
They did this to us intentionally, because they know the power of our vote. They understand what it means for this election … I first started voting in 2014, but the university was racially packed into North Carolina’s 12th district, a district that was shot down by the courts in 2016. So they redrew the lines, but split our campus as a result of it. And while the courts have agreed that these maps are unfair, they’re requiring us to vote in them anyway.
Now, the first time I vote in fair congressional district maps won’t be until 2020. When some of my peers say the system is rigged against them, they’re right. But I refuse to sit by and let them rig it without a fight. I voted early last week and I’m encouraging anyone who hasn’t voted yet to do the same.
The truth is that when the democratic process and the right to vote are restricted, preempted and nullified, our democracy is under attack. These attacks target people of color, especially the poor, youth, and elderly, but in doing so, they strip us all of our constitutional protections; they allow extremists to get elected through voter suppression and racial gerrymandering and then use their power to hurt people of all races.
This is why the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is demanding the immediate full restoration and expansion of the Voting Rights Act, an end to racist gerrymandering and redistricting, early registration of 17 and 18 year olds, the implementation of automatic registration to vote at the age of 18, early voting in every state, same-day registration, the enactment of Election Day as a holiday, and a verifiable paper record. We demand the right to vote for the current and formerly incarcerated. We demand accessible and plentiful polling places to accommodate every voter in this country. We also demand a clear and just immigration system that strengthens our democracy through the broad and meaningful participation of everyone living in this country.
Voting rights are human rights. On Tuesday, we must be a movement that votes.