The fight against voter suppression

The Rev. Rhonda Thomas
Progressive Perspectives (TNS)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on July 13, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)

Democracy is under attack. From voting restrictions to redistricting, there is a wave of efforts to prevent voters of color from going to the polls. Yet I still believe we can win if we continue to fight back.

When I joined the Black Southern Women’s Collaborative , a network of Black women organizing in the South, I was attracted by the prospect of learning from and with other Black women. Founded by organizer Phyllis Hill, BSWC creates space for Black women leaders to share resources such as fundraising and communications, along with strategies to improve our communities. It focuses on the individual as much as it does the work.

Most of BSWC’s members, who are in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Tennessee and Louisiana, have been organizing for decades. Anti-racism and democracy work is hard, but we plenty of experience in pushing against the grain. In the BSWC, we have found a rare “soft place.”

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What I mean by that is that too often Black women struggle to access the funding we need to effectively serve our communities. And, when we do receive funding, it often comes with so many strings that it keeps us from doing the necessary work. The BSWC is unique in that it invests in the whole person, not just the professional parts of us that produce.

I’m convinced that, if we want to build strong, vibrant communities, we must employ the collaborative model. It is a lot easier to fight back when part of a community committed to sharing resources and strategies.

To be clear, the onus is not solely on advocates; elected officials must also do a better job of listening to communities of color and persons living in poverty. That includes ensuring that all people can elect candidates of choice. But instead of expanding access to the ballot, many legislators are actively denying and abridging the right to vote.

Florida, for example, is one of the 19 states that enacted new voting restrictions in the last year. One of those restrictions is Senate Bill 90, which limits the availability and accessibility of voting by mail, requires persons registering voters to issue a warning that their registration may not be valid and curtails voter assistance in returning the ballots.

And Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken additional steps to block voters. First, he proposed a special police force to oversee state elections that would be a handpicked group that reports directly to him. Then he submitted his own congressional redistricting map, a rare step for a governor, which would cut in half two minority districts. (The area spans from Tallahassee to downtown Jacksonville, where the voting age population is nearly 44% Black.)

These changes are as much about limiting who can participate in our democracy as they are about Republicans maintaining power. But, as distressing as those maneuvers are, we know we can win if we work together.

My organization, Faith in Florida, received funding from BSWC to hold more than 1,500 listening sessions to hear from voters about the issues impacting their lives and to map corresponding organizing plans. We initially covered seven counties; now we’ve expanded to 35.

In Louisiana, the BSWC supported the Power Coalition for Equity & Justice as it ran COVID-19 vaccination clinics, redistricting workshops, town halls and other outreach efforts. In Tennessee, Memphis Artists for Change, another BSWC-funded organization, notified around 3,000 people that they’d been purged from the voting rolls.

While the challenges we face are great, so is our power when we collaborate.

— The Rev. Rhonda Thomas is the executive director of Faith in Florida and a member of the Black Southern Women’s Collaborative. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.