Rutledge: Joining a voting rights lawsuit with John Lewis on my mind


Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

The day after John Lewis died, I honored him in the best way I knew how. I sat at my computer for several hours, compiled documents for a court case, and sent them to my lawyers. I did this as one of the complainants in a voting rights case, suing for access to mail-in ballots for all and a waiving of the witness signature during the coronavirus pandemic. In short, the suit was intended to make voting accessible and safe for everyone. 

I had never been involved in a lawsuit before, but I was inspired by the cause and the memory of all who had worked for voting rights before me. So as I sat at my computer, filing documents and photographs for submission, I thought of John Lewis with every click. And I thought of all the others who marched with him in Selma more than 50 years ago. Ordinary people from all walks of life, who stopped what they were doing and joined the struggle, hoping to register Black voters and allow every American to cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice.

In a strange way, being a part of the lawsuit felt restorative. While we have seen so much of the worst of the country over the past four years, in every place from Charlottesville to Minneapolis, and with dog whistles ringing from the West Wing, I was able to glimpse part of what is still right with America. My legal team from the ACLU was representative of the country. We were different ages, races and ethnicities, and gender identities. We lived in different places and practiced different faiths. It was a powerful reminder that John Lewis’ work remains unfinished. We honor him and all who went before by picking up their mantle.

Yet even as I write this, I am aware that this year has seen legal battles in no fewer than 44 states over the right to make mail-in voting accessible to all. The current president has long made false claims of voter fraud or election tampering as a way to justify his party’s attempts to suppress the vote. Journalists and fact-checkers have noted that none of these claims have been substantiated. 

This is nothing new. Our fight to vote is as old as the country itself. And when we join in the fight, we are joining with countless others, from the marchers in Selma to the ACLU lawyers on Zoom. So this year as we vote, and as we encourage everyone else to join us and vote their conscience, let us do so with pride. I know these aren’t proud days for the country, but we remain part of a proud lineage. Anytime we cast a ballot, we honor all who went before. They did their parts in their time and now we can do our part in our time. In our time, many of us will need to vote by mail from home. At the writing of this column, all South Carolinians are eligible to vote by mail due to the pandemic. Yet the witness signature is still required. Others will vote early, wearing masks and physically distancing. Still others will go to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 3 as they have always done. And thousands of poll workers will be there to help them. Ordinary people from all walks of life, doing what they can for the country.

Our ballots have rarely been so important. There are the obvious national races; the presidential and senatorial contests about which many of us made up our minds months, or even years, ago. But there are equally important statewide and local races. We vote for who represents us in Columbia, who sits on our school board, who our sheriff and solicitor will be, and many others who will make decisions about everything from mask ordinances to police training. Now more than ever, we must learn about the local candidates asking for our votes. Casting informed ballots is another way of honoring all who have fought for voting rights.

This year when I vote by mail, I’ll think of John Lewis. I’ll think of the team of ACLU lawyers who worked such long hours. I’ll think of everyone else who is voting and everyone who is trying to stop us. And I’ll fill out my ballot and take it to the drop-off point with pride.

Jeremy Rutledge is senior minister at Circular Church.

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