by Rev. Earle J. Fisher
The May 1, 2018 Shelby County Primary Election produced a five percent increase (19k) overall and a seven percent increase (15k) in early voter turnout from 2014. The Shelby County Election Commission’s response to this increase has been to shut down early voting locations for the August 2, Shelby County General and State/Federal Primary election. The commission has cited several vague and implausible reasons for the unprecedented change in the middle of an election cycle.
In response, the Memphis Branch NAACP and the Shelby County Democratic Party filed separate lawsuits requesting a return to the same precinct structure that was used in May. While Chancellor JoeDae Jenkins’ ultimate ruling didn’t grant that request, he did order changes designed to make the onset of early voting more equitable.
The recent political developments and results have highlighted structural realities that must be redressed. But, not enough of our social, civic, ministerial, and political leaders have been willing to speak up about this plan for voter suppression by proxy.
With the high-volume and high profile project of MLK50 behind us, we’ve already seen a resurgence of broken promises, underrepresentation, and political opportunism. Many of the voices that were amplified in April have gone mute in July. This peculiar political silence reeks of political collusion with an unjust status quo.
In times of unrest and turmoil, it is not always those who speak up, but those who remain silent who reveal the most. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
Since the ballot box is the bedrock of our Democracy, every aspiring and elected official should have taken issue with any plan, by any governing body, which would result in the suppression of any voters. Yet, many notable elected officials have been hushed.
Neither the Shelby County mayor nor the mayor of Memphis has commented publicly.
The majority of those on the City Council and County Commission have been reluctant to make public statements.
Several of the most notable candidates for elected office (both Democrat and Republican) have been woefully silent.
Why won’t they speak up?
And if they are silent on this fundamental, nonpartisan issue, how can we trust them to lead on more divisive matters?
Bishop William Barber suggests that if you’re a pastor asking for tithes but won’t fight for your parishioners to make living wages, you’re engaged in theological malpractice. I agree. I also believe that if you’re an elected official and you won’t fight for your citizens to have equitable access to the ballot box, you’re engaged in political malpractice.
When those who are elected to office won’t rise up to protect the sanctity of the vote, it exemplifies why Democracy is on life-support in Memphis, Shelby County and the entire country. People on both sides of the aisle have been basking in the blistering sun of a low-turnout, low-participation, low-information election process. The result has been government working for an elite minority while exploiting an uninformed, ill-informed and resultingly uninspired political majority.
No matter which political party (if any) someone chooses to associate with, the access to the ballot box should be important to all of us. And whenever we allow our preferred party or chosen candidate to suppress votes, or to remain silent about suppression of our votes, it is a confession that our concern is not about the public good.
Anyone seeking or currently holding elected office that will not advocate for more political inclusion and empowerment deserves to have her/his fitness for office interrogated.
The most immediate medication for this malaise is righteous information – not partisan spin or political posturing. We need to infuse the public with the most accurate and honest information we have available. We need more voter guides, voter empowerment summits and symposiums and public town halls that demand representatives show up and give account for their actions/inaction if they want the community’s political support.
Most of all, we need an informed and inspired, diverse group of engaged citizens to demand a political revolution; not based on party or personality but grounded in a community-oriented agenda that anyone aspiring to public office will be held accountable to.
I see no other option but to convene a 2019 People’s Convention. Details are forthcoming.
In the meantime, with early voting extending from July 13 to July 28 and election day on August 2, #UPTheVote901 and other organizations will be on the ground, in the communities, doing our best to provide people with the necessary tools and resources to confidently march up to the ballot box and cast their votes.
We encourage every citizen of goodwill to do the same.
(The Rev. Earle J. Fisher is the senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Memphis and the co-founder of the Memphis Grassroots Organizations Coalition. He is also a PhD student in the Communications Department at the University of Memphis and the president of the Greater Whitehaven Economic Redevelopment Corporation.)