Poor People’s Campaign takes voting rights drive to state capitals
All the causes espoused by the Poor People's Campaign depend upon stopping the GOP's vote suppression campaigns. | Photo courtesy of Poor People's Campaign

WASHINGTON—Raising the minimum wage. Housing for the poor. Safe drinking water. Defunding much of the U.S. war machine. All those issues—and more—depend on voting rights, and promoting, protecting, and strengthening that cause brought Poor People’s Campaign members out on March 15 to demonstrate in state capitals from coast to coast.

In more than 30 states, plus Washington, D.C., the peaceful campaigners demanded that governors and state lawmakers sign on to a national effort to expand, guarantee and protect the right to vote.

Without that basic right, “Democracy is on its death-bed,” warned the campaign’s co-chair, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, in a later national Zoom call featuring all the reports from the field. “Voting rights is…the key to everything we need to survive and thrive.”

Theoharis cited studies from the Brennan Center for Law and Justice at New York University showing more than 230 pieces of legislation have been introduced in 43 states to curb the right to vote in a variety of ways.

Outside experts call that flood of measures the greatest tide of planned voter repression since enactment of Jim Crow laws in the decades after Reconstruction ended in 1877. And voter repression, Theoharis pointed out in the Zoom call, frustrates all the other goals of the Poor People’s Campaign, chief among which is the eradication of poverty in the U.S. The nation had 140 million poor and near-poor even before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

There’s another reason for the flood of anti-voter legislation, added the Rev. William Barber II, the founder of the New Poor People’s Campaign, when it started as “Moral Mondays” against voter repression in North Carolina.

“It means the extremists are scared, and that’s why they’re trying to block voters,” he said.

The campaigners want the states to put pressure on the new Democratic Biden administration and the almost evenly split Congress to approve, implement and enforce HR1, a comprehensive Democratic-sponsored voting law the House approved on a party-line vote earlier in March.

That measure would certify and expand no-excuses-needed absentee and mail-in balloting, make voter registration easier, shine sunlight on shady campaign financing now used by corporations and generally curb the ability of the radical right to—in so many words—buy both elections and officeholders, among other things. Most prominently HR1 would restore power to enforcing the federal Voting Rights Act.

“We might have a new administration in office but we need to hold them” and all other politicians “accountable,” said Zillah Wesley, at the D.C. protest, held in 30-degree weather (compared to 20 degrees in Boston and 15 in Maine). Without voting rights, other speakers in the D.C. demonstration said, gentrification and expulsion of Black and brown residents from the central city, in favor of wealthier white people, will continue. So will low pay for workers of color in D.C., Wesley added.

“We need them [politicians] to put people over profits,” Becka Forsyth, a Chemung County, N.Y., resident who led the demonstration at the State Capitol building in Albany, said.

But none of the goals the Poor People’s Campaign espouses are achievable without a guaranteed and strengthened right to vote. The goals include a living wage, curbing the Pentagon war machine, repeating the Trump-GOP $1.7 trillion tax cut for the rich, diverting its money and that of the military to housing and education, more funding for higher-quality schools, and the right to organize.

“Our wage and our vote is our power and we can let no one take away or suppress our wage and our vote,” added Jelani Coleman, of Selma, Ala., leader of the group at the state capital of Montgomery.

But the right to vote, especially the power of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, has eroded.

GOP-named U.S. Supreme Court justices gutted the law’s key enforcement section several years ago, and the High Court heard another case on March 2, fostered by the GOP and the radical right, that would virtually eradicate the rest of it.  In between, GOP-run states have further moved to restrict voting, especially by people of color, workers, women, students, the old, and the poor.

Campaigners nailed the demands to reverse the tide of legislation to doors of some state capitol buildings. In others, they presented them to governors and lawmakers. Those who want to join the campaign electronically can find a link to it at bit.ly/14PoliciesLetter.

Kevin Peer, the leader of the New Jersey group, asked lawmakers “why the nation is willing to spend $3,000-$35,000 a year to incarcerate one prisoner, even for minor infractions, when we can’t spend $15 for a living wage.”

Campaigners were sometimes met with closed doors. That included D.C., where the demand for more low-income housing—and less gentrification—came up. In right-wing-dominated Texas, security guards surrounded them at the state capitol building in Austin, said Stephanie Swanson. And Texas’s ruling GOP engineered legislation to further restrict the right to vote in what is already “the toughest state in the U.S.” (her words) for voting rights.

“They want to try to limit early voting, shorten voting on Election Day by an hour” in the evening, thus hampering workers who can’t take time off their jobs, “purge the voter rolls” and make mistakes on voting applications a felony, Swanson explained.

GOP-run Iowa followed the same pattern, said Nicole Alvarez. Right-wing Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation against non-existent “voting fraud” by cutting voting hours on Election Day, curbing mail-in balloting, and ending satellite voting sites seniors and farmers use in the rural state.

Poor People’s Campaign members also laid into those who say “enough has been done” or “let the process take its course.” Barber denounced the first of those responses, Yesenia Chavez of Chicago’s Southeast Side skewered the second. She and 10 other campaign members have been on a no-solid-foods hunger strike since mid-February to dramatize the demands.

“Following the processes implemented to oppress us will not benefit us,” she said. “Policymakers need to be held responsible, and to understand the implications of their anti-(minority) and anti-Black approaches.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.