“The right to vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool or instrument in a democratic society.” Congressman John Lewis
When my sister called on Election Day to ask if I would give her a ride to her voting site, it was a no-brainer.
While driving to her home, I thought about the importance of the 2023 election. This year, all 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly were up for election. Moreover, Gov. Glenn Youngkin had spent weeks implementing a strategy to gain a Republican majority in the Senate, and to maintain Republican control of the House of Delegates. It involved making campaign contributions and approximately 100 campaign stops to support Republican candidates statewide.
As I turned into the voting location, the street was lined with campaign signs. Friendly campaign workers and a few candidates greeted us as they stuffed our hands with campaign literature. I took advantage of the sunny 75 degree weather to take a short walk while waiting. Thoughts of the hard-fought battle for most Americans to gain the right to vote filled my mind.
More than 400 years ago, on July 30, 1619, 22 plantation owners, commonly referred to as “planters,” and Sir George Yeardley, who was appointed Virginia governor by King James I, met at the church at Jamestown Island. Yeardley presided over the first legislative body that would later become known as the House of Burgesses and then the Virginia General Assembly. This was the first representative legislative government meeting in British North America. These men desired a seat at the table to pass laws to control their lives and destinies, but giving everyone a voice in governing was just not in the cards.
British social hierarchy systems shaped the political landscape of the Virginia colony, as well as the new nation that would be birthed on July 4, 1776. In this culture, only white men who were landowners were allowed to vote.
One hundred years after fighting for independence from British tyranny, the nation would be in the throes of the Reconstruction era, which saw formerly enslaved African American men voting and holding offices in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.
Next, women would rise up to lobby for voting rights. In 1920, the Women’s Suffrage Movement led to the ratification of the 19th amendment to give women the right to vote. However, most people of color still faced discrimination when attempting to vote. Their disenfranchisement fueled the 1950s and ’60s Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices codified in Southern states after the Civil War.
Today, nearly 60 years later, progress has been made. Yet, there are still efforts to hinder people from having their votes count. Gerrymandering dates back to the 18th century when Patrick Henry sought to deny James Madison a seat in the first Congress. Henry pushed for drawing district lines to include counties with people like him who were opposed to Madison and the Constitution he authored.
Manipulation to favor specific groups caught on and still shows up. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of African Americans who protested Alabama’s congressional redistricting designed to diminish equal power at the ballot box.
Today, three things are critical when exercising our hard-fought right to vote. First, we must vote and help others to vote. Next, ensure that our representatives’ agendas reflect the communities that they are elected to serve. Finally, advocate for voter-centered redistricting that maintains the communities’ political priorities.
When we come together to build a more just and equitable community, we all win!
Laura D. Hill is the founder and director of Coming to the Table-Historic Triangle, a program of the Virginia Racial Healing Institute. Learn more about her work at Comingtothetable-historictriangle.org.