Congress has a duty to act on voting rights, inequality issues ahead of midterms

A voter registration table is seen at a political event for Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, in Fredericksburg, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

At the end of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King told a diverse crowd, “The threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would pray upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away.” 

When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act that same year, dramatically expanding voting access for communities of color and low-wealth people, we inched closer to the society Dr. King and many other faith leaders envisioned. 

But today, we are facing a national emergency when it comes to poverty and voter suppression. Faith leaders and politicians must work together to combat these moral crises. As scripture says, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” James 2:17. 

We have convened faith leaders from across the nation including Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, to call for action on voting rights legislation, living wages, making the expanded child tax credit permanent and the passage of Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Pramila Jayapal’s (D-Wash.) Third Reconstruction resolution to tackle poverty from the bottom up which grows out of the Poor People’s Campaign’s national call for a moral revival agenda. 

This group of faith leaders are a part of faith communions that include millions of members. Elected leaders must engage with faith leaders from every corner of our nation and celebrate the role of religion and spirituality in shaping American life through the ages, calling for the establishment of justice and promoting the general welfare. We should not allow religious nationalists to control the mic on moral issues, especially on tackling poverty, income inequality, and fundamental voting rights. 

The strides our country has taken since the 1990s in combating child poverty were made possible by robust investments in poverty reduction programs like Medicaid and SNAP benefits. Now, the progress we made during that era could be in jeopardy as a group of senators stall on policies like voting rights, living wages, and the expanded child tax credit. Allowing the child tax credit to expire has caused nearly 4 million children to fall into poverty. 

Already, income inequality in the United States is staggering. 50 million people in this country are being paid less than a living wage, and more than 35 million are living in poverty. The truth is that we have not raised the minimum wage in 13 years and the minimum wage is a poverty wage. This is a compounding problem: when individuals cannot afford to put food on the table, how can we expect them to outmaneuver countless structural barriers to cast a vote? In this way, income inequality serves to suppress voters. 

Meanwhile, the ultra-wealthy are gaming the system to make sure their interests win at the ballot box. CEOs make $670 for every $1 the average worker earns. And with their disproportionate number of resources, CEOs aren’t just voting in elections. They’re buying them. 

According to the FEC, top executives at Facebook have made at least $3.9 million in political donations. CEOs at Chevron and Exxon have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to PACs over the last decade. The cruel irony of this is that while thousands of people face serious barriers to voting, individuals at the top can influence the very legislation that creates and maintains these barriers. As leaders, we both reject PAC money and its role in eroding American democracy.   

This crisis is exacerbated by far-right attacks on voting rights, which target communities of color, but also suppress the votes of women, people with disabilities, students, and the poor, while upholding a system that benefits only a wealthy few. The Senate has stalled on passing the John Lewis For the People Act for more than a year and restoring the Voting Rights Act for nine years despite the efforts to undermine voting rights and fair elections across the country. 

Our faith informs our understanding that lifting up those with the least will benefit everyone. We can’t wait for another election cycle to make sure families keep a roof over their heads and food on the table or to stop the American people from being denied the right to the ballot. 

To meet this moment, we need what the Poor People’s Campaign calls a “moral fusion movement that calls on us in pulpit policy to go forward together, lift from the bottom and not take one step back” that is guided by faith and a moral urgency to act. We can only achieve this by building a multiracial coalition made up of faith leaders, politicians, economists, civil rights lawyers, and the American people who are feeling the most pain. 

Ro Khanna represents the 17th District of California and Rev. William Barber II is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.

Tags Martin Luther King minimim wage Poverty Voter suppression Voting Rights Act

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