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September 9, 2016

The Matthew 25 Voter Protection Project

By Jim Wallis, President and Founder of Sojourners

One of the most apt descriptions of what has been happening over the past few years with regards to racial discrimination and voter suppression came from my friend and colleague Rev. William Barber II, writing for Sojourners. Barber helped launch Moral Mondays in North Carolina in 2013 in response to an unprecedented attack on human rights, including voting rights, and the movement has since spread to other states. Rev. Barber has referred to modern-day attacks on the civil and voting rights of people of color using the phrase “Mr. James Crow, Esq.”

I believe Mr. James Crow Esq.’s biggest concern these days is the demographic shift that is presently occurring in the United States — by 2040, the U.S. will no longer be a white majority nation and, instead, will be made up of a majority of minorities. This fundamental demographic shift in racial and cultural identity is underneath almost everything in U.S. politics — including the presidential election.

And I think Mr. Crow has a clear, systematic strategy to protect white supremacy during this election and beyond. On the one hand, he knows that he can’t outright prevent the demographic changes that our population trends dictate. What he aims to do, instead, is to obstruct and delay changes that new racial demographics will bring to American life and politics.

It seems to me that Mr. James Crow, Esq. has therefore developed a five-part strategy for protecting white supremacy in the United States, which includes racial gerrymandering to diminish the impact of minorities, fighting comprehensive immigration reform to prevent an earned path to citizenship for new voters, mass incarceration linked to voter disenfranchisement of prisoners when they return to society, voter suppression based on new voting regulations deliberately targeted against minority voters, and encouraging a political resurgence of white nationalism. In the forthcoming November issue of Sojourners magazine, we will unpack all five of these tactics in greater detail, but this week I want to talk about voter suppression, its impact on the most vulnerable members of society, and what we can all do to fight against it.

Since 2010, 21 states — including some key battlegrounds in the presidential election — have instituted new voting restrictions, boosted by Republican victories in statewide elections. In the April issue of Sojourners magazine, Myrna PĂ©rez of the Brennan Center for Justice called this “the biggest rollback of the right to vote since the Jim Crow era.” The 2013 Supreme Court ruling (in Shelby v. Holder) made voter suppression even easier for states by gutting a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Washington Post did an excellent job of documenting the impact of Shelby v. Holder on North Carolina's voting laws, which were being crafted at the same time as the Supreme Court was debating the case:

Under a decades-old provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — called Section 5 — Southern states like North Carolina with a history of voter discrimination could not change election laws without the approval of federal officials...On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the case, nullifying Section 5...In North Carolina, within hours of the court ruling, [Republicans lawmakers] told local reporters, “Now we can go with the full bill.” … The new bill shortened early voting by half, cutting one of the Sundays when black churches held their “Souls to Polls” drives. It eliminated same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting. It also proposed changes that...made no sense unless you were purposely trying to discourage voting.

Just this summer, a federal court struck down the North Carolina law, ruling that certain provisions of it “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” The court added, “With race data in hand, the legislature amended the bill to exclude many of the alternative photo IDs used by African Americans” and “retained only the kinds of IDs that white North Carolinians were more likely to possess.” Yet, importantly, restrictive voter ID laws in a number of other states remain on the books, and will be in place for Election Day.

These restrictions, usually done under the guise of preventing alleged voter fraud, are in fact aimed at making it more difficult for poor people and minorities to vote. Numerous investigations and studies have shown that voter fraud is largely a myth. One rigorous academic study documented just 31 cases of voter fraud out of one billion ballots cast between 2000-2014.

In the 25th chapter of Matthew, Jesus calls us to protect the “least of these” — the hungry, thirsty, and naked, strangers, those sick and in prison. Because the new voter restrictions are aimed at these very people, I call this effort “the Matthew 25 voter-suppression campaign” as it often targets our most vulnerable voters; protecting them now becomes a gospel issue. Deliberately suppressing voting rights is the most effective technique for those seeking to obstruct the changes brought about by the new demographics in this country. That is a fundamental moral issue, a democracy issue, not just a partisan one.

So how can we, as people of faith, respond to these efforts at voter suppression and protect the right to vote of “Matthew 25 people”? Activists will continue to work at the state and federal level to challenge unjust voter suppression laws in court, and we should continue to lift up that work and partner with allies like the Moral Mondays movement, The Advancement Project, The Brennan Center, the Freedom Sunday Coalition, and the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, to name just a few.

But in the meantime, since many of these laws will be in effect on Election Day and beyond, volunteers will be needed all across the country to ensure that vulnerable voters know their rights, have a way to get to the polls, are supported while they are there for long waits in lines, and have the opportunity to express their constitutional right to vote.

On Election Day, I would love to see clergy collars and congregation members in polling places all over the country to protect and support our most vulnerable voters. Sojourners is organizing and planning with many other non-partisan groups to organize and train pastors and congregations to do just that.The fact of the matter is that there will always be those who utilize the unjust tools of voter suppression for partisan objectives. But as Christians committed to justice and living in a representative democracy, it's hard to argue against wanting as many people as possible to participate in self-government by exercising their right to vote — no matter how they vote. The results should teach any party that stands to lose elections if more people vote that it isn't appealing to enough people.

Voter protection is a moral issue for democracy, and when it especially calls for the protection of our most vulnerable voters, is also becomes an issue of faith. Let’s show that with our presence on Nov. 8.

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