‘We have the opportunity to protect our democracy by passing the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York.’

polling site astoria

Jeanmarie Evelly

A polling site in Astoria, Queens, in 2019.

Our country is a beacon of hope for democracy, founded with the promise that justice and equality can serve as the building blocks of a great nation. However, for some of us, the right to participate in this democracy had to be earned through blood, tears, and sacrifice. 

Growing up, my mother would have me read the many books in her library about the Civil Rights Movement. She introduced me to the stories of leaders like Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., who gave their lives for our chance at a fair democracy. Of course, I also learned about the “Boy from Troy” Congressman John Lewis, a true hero to many Americans. It’s an absolute tragedy to have lost such a powerful voice for the dignity of Black lives and for the very basic right to vote. 

Throughout the course of his life, Congressman Lewis made many sacrifices to get us our chance at a true and fair democracy. Many of us in the next generation of activists have already begun to follow in his footsteps. For more than two months, we organized protests, and rallies seeking justice for the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery and others who have been killed by police violence.  

With every opportunity given to me to speak I would emphasize how important it was for us to actively participate in our democracy by using the power to vote. I reminded thousands of protestors of the upcoming primary and how they could request absentee ballots to avoid voting in person.  

However, many people approached me informing me that waited weeks for their ballots. And NBC reported that city election officials rejected 84,000 ballots — 21 percent of all those received by election officials. That is 84,000 voices that went unheard by our democracy.

Many states have a history of suppressing the voices of minorities. Impossible and arbitrary tests prevented many African Americans from voting, giving legal cover to the widespread belief in Southern states that the right to cast a ballot in any election varied by skin color. Even New York State passed a law requiring an English literacy test to vote. In a city like New York that has a large number of immigrants who may not speak English, this was a very intentional discriminatory act. By 1968, this meant that fewer than half of those who were voting-age in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx actually voted.

Activists like Lewis eventually succeeded in showing the nation that the 1965 Voting Rights Act, signed 55 years ago this month, was the necessary antidote to this blatant voter suppression. 

Even so, more than half a century later, our voices and our votes are still being suppressed. Language access remains insufficient; voting resources are not supplied to Black and Brown communities; polling sites are closed or moved with little to no notice; absentee ballots arrive after the election or not at all; and, we are witnessing the defunding of our postal service right before one of the most influential elections in our history. As President Barack Obama remarked while eulogizing Lewis : “We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot. But even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting”.  

The same stumbling blocks that hindered civil rights leaders decades ago seem to have returned, or maybe they never left. Instead they have swelled into more complex obstacles for us to overcome. True democracy must be protected at all costs, we cannot allow the progress that so many have made be slowly rolled back by unconstitutional schemes put forth by those who want to silence the voices of the minorities.

This is why New Yorkers need the passage of a state-level voting rights act to preserve our right to vote. Otherwise, as Lewis points out, if we let up in the slightest, we could easily lose it. We have the opportunity to protect our democracy by passing the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York. 

This legislation will protect voters, make voting more inclusive by adding language accommodations, and mandate that changes to local election laws must be approved by the State’s Attorney General. These changes aren’t just good, they are necessary. Lewis trusted us to pick up the torch and continue to cause that “Good Trouble.” Just like Lewis did in forcing through the 1965 Voting Rights Act, today we must make our leaders fulfill his vision of a more inclusive, and equal government. 

Timothy Hunter (@TheTimHunter) serves as the Chairperson of the CUNY University Student Senate, and is an NYC Votes We Power NYC Youth Voting Ambassador.

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