On 55th anniversary of Voting Rights Act, Black lawmakers stress importance of voting in November

State Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, speaks Thursday, 8/6/20 on a Zoom conference call organized by Joe Biden's presidential campaign (Screen Capture)

(*This story was updated at 3:31 p.m. on 8/6/20 to correct the age of state Rep. Jordan Harris’ mother. She is 62 years old)

State Rep. Jordan Harris’ mother is 62* years old. For her, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed Black Americans’ right to vote, isn’t ancient history. It’s a day that exists within living memory.

State Rep. Joanna McClinton’s grandmother was born in 1931. She should have had the right to vote when she turned 18 in 1949. Instead, McClinton’s grandmother had to wait nearly 20 years before she could cast a ballot.

That right to vote, “is something that must be restored and renewed every year, for us as a commonwealth, as a country, to have faith in voting,” Harris, the second-ranking Democrat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, said Wednesday during a Zoom conference call organized by Joe Biden’s presidential campaign paying tribute to the landmark law’s anniversary.

In the wake of the death of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., congressional Democrats and their allies have renewed their push to restore voting protections that the U.S. Supreme Court removed seven years ago. Democrats have proposed renaming the law in honor of Lewis, a civil rights titan who made voting rights one of the central causes of his life. Republicans have resisted the effort, the New York Times reported.

Asked by the event’s moderator, the Rev. Greg Roberts, how Democrats, particularly Black lawmakers, can reinforce the importance of voting to younger Black Americans who feel left behind by the process, Harris and McClinton stressed the need for communication and transparency.

“Since I’ve been in the Legislature, my mom said, ‘If I knew what a state representative’s office did, we’d have a few less struggles,'” McClinton, D-Philadelphia, said. “We have to let people know what we do. We have to be that voice. We have to start young. Too many times, our youth don’t see the value in voting because they have never met an elected official.”

It’s also important for lawmakers to work on issues, such as criminal justice and police reform, that are important to younger voters, and to show them that, based on the people they choose to represent them, that very different outcomes can result.

“We have to tell them voting is not the end of the process, it’s the beginning of the process,” Harris said. “After you vote for someone, you have to stay involved … We all have a part to play in our body politic.”

Both lawmakers said it was important for them to show Black voters that Democrats would get them the results on the issues that matter to them, from the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court and voting rights at the national level, to education funding at the state level.

“We have to do a better job of communicating what happens in city halls or state capitols, how that effects their lives and livelihoods,” Harris said. “We have to be in the business of explaining not only how their vote matters, but how it affects their lives.”

The challenge is not merely an academic one. New research by scholars at American University shows that Democrats have ground to make up among young Black voters in such battleground states as Pennsylvania.

The researchers’ survey of 1,215 voters in six battleground states ” … reveals that while those over 60 remain among the most reliable of Democratic voters, and those between 40-59 are still pretty locked in as well, those under 30 (whom we oversampled to comprise half of our sample) are anything but.”

And because the call was organized by Biden’s campaign, both McClinton and Harris said they believe the former, two-term vice president is best situated to address those voters’ concerns.

“Eighty-eight days from now is the most important election of our lifetimes,” McClinton said. “If this pandemic has exposed anything, it has has exposed inequality that has existed for way too long. This pandemic has shown that too many Americans are one or two paychecks away from not having financial stability. It has shown the gap in leadership at the White House.”

Biden is the “the best and only choice we have to save our country, and move it forward,” she added.

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press