National Voter Registration Day 2020: The Time is Now
By Frank Nolan
My colleague Aklima Khondoker recently penned an eloquent tribute to the late Congressman John Lewis, underscoring the importance of fighting for his life’s work of achieving an equitable and free American democracy.
I never got to meet Congressman Lewis like Aklima did, but I was blessed to be on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama earlier this year for the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, where Lewis appeared to make one final passionate appeal to the better angels of our nature — the voice in our heads that may be tired and even disillusioned, but refuses to give up. While Lewis’s vision must be fulfilled through tireless collective advocacy — both by the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and adequate funding for our elections in a COVID-19 relief package — it is also incumbent upon all of us to assume our responsibilities as Americans.
“We must go out and vote like we never, ever voted before,” Congressman Lewis said that day in Selma.
Congressman Lewis was more prescient than even he could have known.
Mere weeks after I was in Selma, COVID-19 began to devastate our communities, resulting in the deaths, as of this week, of more than 200,000 of our friends and neighbors. Sadly, those dying are disproportionately the same people whose right to vote has still not been unquestionably affirmed. This is unacceptable, and on National Voter Registration Day this year, we must recognize the stakes with absolute clarity as we organize to fight back.
A year ago this month, our sister organization published “Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote,” a comprehensive report detailing how 1,688 polling places were closed between 2012 and 2018 in states formerly covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the dissent in the decision that gutted the VRA, saying that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” These polling place closures wreaked havoc on low-income communities and communities of color. As COVID-19 has disproportionately killed and impoverished people in these communities, so too has it disproportionately inhibited and altogether halted already grueling efforts to ensure they are able to register to vote. Adding fuel to the fire, President Trump is hellbent on sabotaging any chance that they may vote safely and early through the mail, and has tried to politicize the census count in an attempt to further diminish power in vulnerable communities. This is what white supremacy in action looks like.
Our democracy is under attack like never before, and while the journey ahead will be long and arduous, we must rise to the occasion now. Every single existential issue — like the climate crisis, police brutality and mass incarceration, the right to health care, the cancellation of student debt, and more — will be impossible to address unless we ensure that all Americans can vote this fall, no matter what they look like or where they live.
On National Voter Registration Day, join us at The Leadership Conference as we bring together a coalition of organizations working at the national and grassroots level to protect the democratic values and civil rights that John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought for. Visit andstillivote.org for more resources and ways to get involved. Future generations depend on it.
Frank Nolan is the campaigns and programs associate at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.