By William J. Barber, II, Liz Theoharis, Iva Carruthers, and Rick Jacobs
According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 300,000 more people have died in the US during the coronavirus pandemic than would in a typical year. As faith leaders who’ve said burial rites, sat virtual shiva, and prayed the Janazah with families who were not able to be with their loved ones when they died, we have been on the front lines of this surge in death. Before covid-19, we were already weary of the death toll, especially among poor and low-income Americans. But this pandemic has exposed how much of the death in our communities results from the decisions of political leaders. As our communities go to the polls in this year’s election, we are uniting to ring our bells for those who long to be heard and protect the vote.
We cannot be silent as the voting rights of poor, Black and brown people are suppressed and democratic norms are called into question. We know we are voting for every voice forever silenced by covid-19 and poverty, and we are voting for every one disenfranchised by discriminatory laws. We are voting for every one of the 133 million Americans with preexisting conditions and the 140 million people who are either living in poverty or one fire, storm, job loss, or healthcare crisis away from poverty.
These victims of policy violence have joined our spiritual ancestors – those who endured violence and intimidation at every turn in order to vote years ago: Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Sister Antona, Rev. James Reeb, Jimmie Lee Jackson and many others, both named and unnamed.
Despite these witnesses who died in the struggle for voting rights, we are still living in an impoverished democracy. In the midst of a global pandemic, efforts to increase capacity for voting by mail as well as safe in-person voting at early voting locations and polling sites on Election Day have been challenged in court and questioned daily on cable news. Domestic groups are spreading disinformation and attempting to undermine the integrity of this election. Even public officials in the highest offices in the land have refused to promise that they will accept the results of the election.
Poor and low wealth people have been disproportionately impacted by both covid-19 and voter suppression. We cannot allow anything or anybody to interfere, take, or abridge the right of those who have suffered most to vote in this election. Indeed, poor and low-income people hold the key to changing our entire political landscape and making poverty and racism history.
This past August, a groundbreaking report showed that poor and low-income people can play a critical role in creating a transformative new electorate. With just a small uptick in voting, eligible poor and low-income voters in 15 states exceed the margin of victory from the 2016 Presidential election and in 16 states from the 2018 midterms. When poor and low-income voters participate at the same level as higher income voters, they have the power to win health care, living wages, quality education, and true immigration and police reform for all. This is what poor and low-income voters can do in this election.
In his famous line which has echoed across generations, the English poet John Donne wrote that we should “never send to ask for whom the bell tolls / it tolls for Thee.” When he wrote those words, church bells in English villages were used to call the community together for funerals. This year, as America has faced unprecedented sickness and death, we have used bells, pots and pans to honor the frontline healthcare workers who risk their lives every day to care for the sick. They do not have to ask for whom the bells toll. They toll for everyone who has stepped up to do their part in the midst of the pandemics covid-19, poverty, and racism.
At noon on each day of the week prior to November 3rd—and each hour on the hour as Americans vote on Election Day—faith communities in all 50 states will ring bells from our houses of worship and on the sidewalks of our communities. These bells will toll for you, calling every American to march to the polls and protect voting rights. We invite you to join us and pray with us as we lift up this nation and this election. May the clear sound of our bells pierce through the noise of this season and remind us of the call for each and every American’s vote to be counted.
Bishop William J. Barber, II is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, alongside Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis.