In our democracy, our many rights, freedoms and opportunities flow from a single, fundamental right: the right to vote. Thomas Jefferson described the right to vote beautifully and perfectly as “the ark of our safety,” a phrase President Lyndon Johnson quoted in his speech to Congress in support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Jefferson’s choice of the word “safety” is revelatory. The full quote is, “The elective franchise, if guarded as the ark of our safety, will peaceably dissipate all combinations to subvert a constitution, dictated by the wisdom, and resting on the will of the people.”
On Sunday May 30, late in the evening, members of the Texas House Democratic Caucus joined the distinguished company of democracy’s heroes to stand against those who would subvert the right to vote. Faced with what might be the most pernicious and cynical attack on voting rights in decades, Democrats, outnumbered by the majority party, walked out en masse of the state Capitol, blocking the necessary quorum to pass the notorious Senate Bill 7.
There has been important reporting on the ugly provisions of S.B. 7. One, Section 232.063, kept secret by its backers until the final two days of the legislative session, allowed a court to “declare the election void” merely based on an allegation — a simple allegation — that enough “illegally cast” votes were recorded to have altered the outcome of the election.
Another, Section 3.10, banned voting before 1 p.m. on Sundays, functionally gutting “Souls to the Polls” an effort in African American communities to vote immediately after Sunday morning church services.
Of course, bill proponents now hold that both of these provisions were mistakes, with the Sunday hours provision being a “typo.” Even the most credulous observer would find it hard to believe that a bill which was worked on for months mistakenly had the the number 11 turned into a 1, and “a.m.” turned into “p.m.,” and that error just so happened to eliminate one of the most successful African American voting initiatives in recent history. It begs the question of what other “typos” may eventually become law to stop Texans from voting.
Many other parts of the bill were directed at Harris County, home to Houston, and the county where I serve as the chief executive. In 2020, we advanced innovations like 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting to make it easier for voters of all parties to participate. It worked. We had a record turnout. Those innovations would be prohibited by S.B. 7.
Some have said the democratic victory in Texas is only temporary, that the voter suppression bill will be passed by the majority party in a special legislative session later this year.
Well, all our victories in the struggle for voting rights are temporary. History teaches us that. But, our every win advances the cause.
Let’s put all this in the long historical context. The women’s suffrage movement was born in the 1840s. It was seven decades later that women secured the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment. The 15th Amendment, adopted in 1870, gave voting rights to African Americans. Segregationist Jim Crow laws were then adopted in Southern states to curtail those rights. Jim Crow was dealt a blow by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but the assaults on minority voting rights have never ended.
The context is important because we must understand that the “ark of our safety” is always endangered. There will be no final victory.
When a special session is called to give the Republicans another shot at passing a voter suppression bill, we cannot give up hope and must renew our fight in the legislature. The legislators who stood strong against the latest attack on the franchise will have an enormous burden to carry. We help them carry that burden by speaking out and supporting the movement to protect voting rights wherever it takes us. We help them carry that burden by not allowing any bill to pass that is borne of the idea that there was massive voter fraud. We help them carry that burden through action — the much-needed passage of H.R. 1 at the national level. Whether the bill proposed is so blatantly discriminatory as to ban “Souls to the Polls” or whether it is deceitful as to its ultimate aim, any policy passed based on the idea that our democratic processes are rife with fraud severely weakens our democracy, our Ark of Safety.
President Johnson also said in his March 1965 speech, “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.”
Right now, we find ourselves at another one of those times and places where the ark must be defended and protected with everything we have to give to the cause.
Judge Lina Hidalgo is the head of Harris County’s governing body. She is the first woman to be elected County Judge and only the second to be elected to the Commissioners Court.