By Jenny Horn

Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights and board chair of the ERA Coalition, opened this month’s town hall by welcoming all of the speakers and attendees and thanking the Harnish Foundation and John J. Harnish for sponsoring the town hall, and then reiterated the importance of the discussion surrounding voting rights in our democracy today. Peeler-Allen explained that voting rights and access to the ballot are critical to democracy, and the best government is one that can be built only when all voices are heard and included.

Peeler-Allen continued the town hall by introducing the esteemed speakers. First up was Representative Terri Sewell, who represents Alabama’s 7th Congressional District, and who is the first Black woman to ever serve in the Alabama Congressional Delegation. Representing Alabama's civil rights district with her own hometown being Selma, she is the sponsor of HR 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Second, up was Dr. Maya Rockymoore Cummings, senior fellow at Brookings Metro, and the Founder, President, and CEO of Global Policy Solutions. Her upcoming book, Rageism, explores racism, ageism, and the quest for policy and will be published later this year. Third was Maria Teresa Kumar, founding President of Voto Latino. Fourth to be introduced was Melanie Campbell, the convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable. 

To start the conversation, Peeler-Allen asked Congresswoman Sewell what we should be thinking about in this critical moment for voting rights, and their importance of them at this time. Congresswoman Sewel responded by first stating that she acknowledged the importance of the Equal Rights Amendment, noting that equal rights and voting rights are entirely intersectional and really go hand in hand. She also explained that the Congressional District she represents consists of many historic cities, where nearly 57 years ago in her hometown of Selma the community demanded that America live up to the ideas of equality and justice for all that it so strongly asserts in its written values.

Barriers to voting

Sewell herself didn’t have to read about the march towards the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because she experienced it – those marching were her neighbors, church members, and her larger community who marched for those rights and did extraordinary work towards social change.

Unfortunately since 2013 when the Supreme Court repealed parts of the Civil Rights Act with its decision in Shelby v. Holder it has been far more difficult to stop discriminatory voting laws from going into effect, and the barriers to voting are still being erected. Congresswoman Sewell explained that these modern day challenges to voting are no less vicious, and still heavily limit access to the ballot box primarily for people of color.

"We vote for the people who look like us, who will carry our voices to these houses of power, and who will work in our best interests, and thus we need to care about voting rights as the very foundation of our democracy as it truly affects us in every level of government." - Representative Terri Sewell

We have been able to pass the HR4 bill in the House of Representatives and have been unable to get it through the Senate to get it on the President’s desk, but we can’t give up and we must keep working because in time we will win, Sewell reminded attendees.

Successes in protecting voting rights

Peeler-Allen re-introduced Melanie Campbell, then asking her what some of the most recent successes at the state, local, or federal in protecting and expanding the right to vote. Campbell explained that a part of the larger victory right now is the mere fact that we are staying in the fight for equal voting rights at all.

Campbell said that we still have a lot of work to do to fight back against voter suppression, but the victory right now has been getting folks tuned in and involved in the movement. Campbell asserted that this is not just a battle for Black America but this is about our democracy, and this a component of a bigger attack on the larger structure of voting laws to keep a particular group of people in power. Campbell insisted that we have to keep on fighting now despite losing the vote on HR 4 in the Senate, and that we have to keep finding ways to shine light onto these issues.

Peeler-Allen then moved on to ask Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings about the practical impacts of voter disenfranchisement from a policy standpoint. Rockeymoore Cummings responded by explaining that the context here matters. When the United States was created, it was supposed to a form of self-governance, and the idea of self-rule being a part of democracy was encapsulated in the Constitution - yet their notion of who could self-rule was basically only white men who were of means – so this left out women, left out people of color, and certainly left out African Americans who at the time were described as even less than human.

Fast forward today today and women and Black people have organized to assert themselves as worthy of having a voice in our democracy. Black individuals and in particular Black women really only finally received their right to vote back in 1965 and so in practical terms, what voting means is to actually have a right to have your voice heard, to have your preferences determine the shapes and policies of our laws, and actually have a society with laws and rules that are reflective of the belief of the majority of the nation.

So when we talk about the right to vote in a democracy, it means having a society that actually reflects our values. When you do not have women or people of color actually able to have their voices heard at the ballot box, that means their preferences are left out of the political and policymaking process, and the end result is skewed – it's one that only reflects the will and the values of primarily white men in our society.

A fight for our democracy

Peeler-Allen continued the discussion by inviting Maria Teresa Kumar to talk about some of the work that Voto Latino is doing through voter registration and engagement – what are some of the things Voto Latino is looking at in 2022? Kumar responded by first thanking Carol Jenkins and the ERA Coalition for the work they do in this realm, and said that we are right now in the true middle of the fight for our democracy.

What America is, and what its promises are, is at stake, and we are living in a very difficult moment right now, Kumar stated. However, she pointed out that we know what our rights should be and that’s shown in how we’ve all organized against this suppression.

Over 60% of Latino voters right now are under the age of 33 years old, and every single one of these votes matter. - Maria Teresa Kumar

As Kumar’s video cut out (2022 tech glitch!), Rockeymoore Cummings jumped in to explain that we are turning into a majority-minority nation, and that the people currently in power are scared out of their minds by this. But we have power in our coalitions, and the fact of the matter is that we need to expand the vote to rush the system in a way that leads us to a multicultural and multiracial democracy.

Kumar was able to join us again to agree with Rockeymoore Cummings, and the importance of reminding ourselves that we have done the hard work. Kumar concluded by saying that we needed to turn the system to actually represent us as we are, not as the people in power want us to be. 

At the intersection of the ERA and voting rights

Peeler-Allen transitioned the discussion to another direction, asking each speaker to give some thought as to how they see the Equal Rights Amendment and voting rights intersecting in this moment. Congresswoman Sewell pointed out that voting rights and women’s rights center on having our voices heard and represented in this democracy, and it is important to note that change rarely comes in the halls of Congress – rather it comes through activism efforts and coalition building that demand action and change.

Campbell stated that voting rights are core to our fundamental rights. Coalitions show up to make a difference through voting, and at the end of the day we know that voting rights are central to our constitutional rights being sustained and protected, and the Equal Rights Amendment is the unfinished business that is a perfect example of this. 

Opportunities and challenges

Peeler-Allen asked how advocates for the ERA could better make the case for the expansion and protection of voting rights. Rockeymoore Cummings responded by saying that we just needed to make the most direct connection that rights for women can only be accomplished through equal voting rights, and we have to do this action through coalition, and through an inclusion revolution. "We have to link our voices together in order to be heard, and the intersectionality of our issues need to be acknowledged so we can connect one another with strong voices to propel change forward and explode the silos holding so many of our individuals back from being included in our democracy," Rockeymoore Cummings stated. 

Peeler-Allen then asked what some of the biggest opportunities and challenges are in the fight to expand voting rights. Congresswoman Sewell said that the biggest threat is the construction of voter apathy, and that we need to make sure that people really know that their vote matters and will evoke change. We are so much further into progress today than our mothers and fathers were. And this needs to be remembered to keep motivation going in this fight.

Rockeymoore Cummings said that the biggest opportunity lies in the next generation of voters, and mobilizing and educating them for what is to come. The largest challenge, on the other hand, is the current waves of new voter suppression laws being enacted across many states in America right now. She said, "we’re going to look at not only these laws being enacted, but also how these state legislatures are operating so we can both change and reverse these laws and also prevent this from happening again in the future."

Campbell then explained that the challenges are really the laws that have come in so fast that they are hard to block before they’re implemented. But she noted that our opportunities lie in remembering who we are and what we’re doing, and the change that we are implementing and forcing every day to get our voices heard.

Finally, Kumar summarized that channeling our anger to create action is where we can find the greatest opportunity, and that we need to continue to have conversations like these to keep up our fight and keep our efforts equal to what we know we deserve. 

Kimberly Peeler-Allen concluded the town hall regarding voting rights by thanking all of the speakers today for their time and their hard work.

The next town hall with the ERA Coalition and Fund for Women's Equality will be on March 17, 4-5 p.m. ET on gun violence and the intersection with violence against women.

Watch the full town hall

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