To honor John Lewis’ legacy, we must protect the freedom to vote

The fight for voting rights is far from over

Attendees hold candles on July 17 at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington to mark one year since the death of Georgia Rep. John Lewis.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Attendees hold candles on July 17 at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington to mark one year since the death of Georgia Rep. John Lewis. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 23, 2021 at 6:00am

Before the legendary John Lewis was a congressman, he was an organizer who fought for the sacred right to vote and endured unimaginable brutality at the hands of those who believed that the blessings of liberty were reserved only for some.

His story is a reminder that all of us have the potential, if not the outright responsibility, to get into “Good Trouble” — to fight for what is right and make freedom ring for all, even if there is a cost. Decades later, that sacred right to vote is still under siege. As we sit in Arizona and Georgia, we see that the powerful are once again trying to silence the voices of voters for their own political gain — in our states and across the nation.

As chairs of the Democratic parties of Arizona and Georgia, we are on the front lines of the latest battle for voting rights. We have watched in disgust as Republican state legislatures attempt to undermine our democracy by passing vicious voter suppression legislation — payback for Democratic victories in the last election cycle. In Arizona, Republicans passed legislation that would remove hundreds of thousands of voters from the early voting list. In Georgia, Republicans made it a crime to provide food and water to voters waiting in line to vote, limited drop boxes for absentee ballots, and collapsed the timeline for absentee ballot requests. It’s not just our states; 389 voter suppression bills have been introduced in 48 state legislatures this year alone.

And make no mistake — Republicans are implementing these bills to stop people who look like us from exercising our voting power after they saw how that power changed the trajectory of our states and our country. This coordinated GOP attack on voting rights demands a resounding national response. But Republicans are using the filibuster — which has a history of being used to block voting rights legislation — to stop the For the People Act, which is exactly the type of federal action needed to preserve the right to vote in our states and standardize democracy across the country, no matter your ZIP code. 

The For the People Act’s provisions to strengthen our democracy enjoy broad support across the political spectrum. It would protect the rights of all Americans to choose who represents them, enact guardrails against corruption in elections and give every voter peace of mind knowing that their ballot will be counted. Such legislation should be welcomed by everyone who cherishes American democracy.

But extremist politicians like Mitch McConnell are dead set on upholding barriers that silence voices based on the color of their skin or economic status. Instead of using their power to expand and protect our democracy, Republicans are exploiting the filibuster to block some of the most consequential legislation of our lifetime.

Our nation’s history shows us it is not enough to merely voice support for voting rights — you have to be willing to get into Good Trouble. We have seen that far-right extremists are willing to use the courts, legislatures and even physical force to deny Americans their fundamental rights. We cannot let them dictate the fate of our democracy. We must fight back.

The federal government has already thrown its weight behind this battle for our democracy, with the Department of Justice suing the state of Georgia over its racist voter suppression law. Attorney General Merrick Garland has strongly urged Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation to equip the government with the resources it needs to protect every American’s right to vote. This urgency has been further underscored by the Supreme Court’s recent decision to weaken the Voting Rights Act, giving a green light to Republican state legislatures to continue implementing suppressive election policies. 

With the federal government’s options limited and the highest court in the land unwilling to challenge voter suppression, the onus is now squarely on Congress to act. If the Senate, including Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, truly wishes to preserve our democracy, it must keep every option on the table in the fight for voting rights.

Though Senate Republicans blocked debate on the For the People Act, this fight is far from over. As John Lewis once said, “Freedom is not a state; it is an act. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”

We cannot let obstruction and inaction get in the way of the sacred right to vote for which so many heroes like Congressman Lewis risked their lives. Each of our 100 senators has the opportunity to answer his call to do our generation’s part to make our society more just. We demand the Senate listen and heed that call.

Rep. Nikema Williams serves as chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia and represents the state’s 5th District in Congress.

State Rep. Raquel Terán serves as chair of the Arizona Democratic Party and is a member of the state House of Representatives.