The Importance of the Poor Person’s Vote

By William J. Barber II and Liz Theoharis
August 13, 2020

For the last three years, the Poor People’s Campaign has organized among the 140 million Americans who are in poverty or one emergency away from poverty, and who have decided it’s time to build the power to change their country. From California to the Carolinas, Mississippi to Maine, the mountains of Kentucky to the backroads of Alabama, we’ve seen how paid-for politicians have threatened the voting rights of poor folks of every race, creed and sexuality. We’ve also seen what’s possible when the dispossessed of this nation begin to move together.

In June, when we held the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, millions of people joined on social media alone. They heard poor and low-income people speak their truths and demand justice. From this multi-colored quilt, we pledged to build the political power and moral vision to reconstruct America by supporting the poor people’s right to vote.

A groundbreaking new report from the Poor People’s Campaign proves empirically what we’ve always known: Poor and low-income people can become a transformative new electorate. Authored by Robert Hartley, faculty affiliate at the Center for Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia School of Social Work, the report finds that if the 34 million poor and low-income eligible nonvoters in the 2016 presidential election had mobilized at the same rate as higher-income voters, they could have met or exceeded the margin of victory in 15 states. This includes key states in the Midwest and the South. Drawing on this report, and in light of our worsening economic conditions, we believe that this potential voting power could be even greater in 2020 — and a moral fusion movement makes our prospects stronger.

We have worked for years to educate, organize, register and mobilize a movement to support not party personalities but enduring principles. Over the next three months, the Poor People’s Campaign will intensify our work among poor and low-income voters, especially in states with key US Senate races. We’re rolling out a movement to expand our base, register millions of voters and protect voting rights. We’re organizing digital town halls and nationally coordinated days of action. We call this multicolored crusade “We Must Do M.O.R.E. — Mobilize, Organize, Register and Educate — People for a Movement that Votes.”

We can see the need for change in cities and suburbs, factories and farmlands alike, and among the frontline leaders who are helping to lead the Poor People’s Campaign. It is evident in the story of Tiffany Pyette who has long dealt with illness and medical debt. At a Poor People’s Campaign event, she said that before Covid-19 she was terrified that politicians would judge her life too expensive. The virus indeed confirmed that our government undervalues the well-being of people like Pyette, failing to provide universal health care when people desperately needed it. Pyette knows that both her life and this election matter; she pushes for candidates whose policies speak to her condition.

Denita Jones, an essential worker, shared her story of being forced to choose between going back to work or losing her job when Texas opened prematurely. Her $1,200 federal stimulus check covered just a single month’s rent. Her grocery bills soared as price-gouging sent everyday essentials sky-high. Now, Jones must put her health, and the health of her children, at risk so she can keep a roof over their heads. She knows that millions share her perils and demonstrates a commitment to create change this fall and beyond.

All across the country, poor and low-income people demand accountable representation. In the River Parishes in Louisiana and in Michigan’s deindustrialized cities of Detroit and Flint, community leaders have long fought for their very lives while demanding a real government response to the petrochemical disaster in Cancer Alley and the water crisis in Michigan.

Low-wage workers in North Carolina, Florida, and Wisconsin demand candidates who advocate living wages, paid sick leave and union rights. Homeless students in California, Massachusetts, and Virginia call on candidates to stand for public education, debt relief, housing programs, and voting rights. Small-town folks in Pennsylvania and Alabama insist that candidates keep rural hospitals open and enact universal health care. Many of these community leaders have told us that they will pledge their votes only to candidates who are ready to confront the intolerable crises in their communities.

The excuse of scarcity is a myth. We have all seen how fast the government conjures up cash for corporations. If we enliven and enlarge the electorate and build the political will, affordable housing, quality schooling, clean water and health care for all will follow.

Our new report challenges the myth that poor people won’t vote their interests. It shows what’s possible when the poor vote together to secure what they need. But history also shows the costs of remaining divided. In 1965, at the conclusion of the Selma-Montgomery march, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “It may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow… That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would prey upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away.”

We have seen the resurgence of a racialized strategy of divide and conquer. We’ve also witnessed what happens when poor people cross racial lines around a common moral agenda, even in states like Kansas and Kentucky. That’s why, over the next 100 days, we’re holding 10 Senate Town Halls in critical states where Pyette, Jones and many others organize to unleash the power of the poor.

We do this in the name of our families, neighbors, and local leaders like Pamela Sue Rush, who died from novel coronavirus. Covid-19 pushed Rush off the cliff to which decades of injustice had driven her — preexisting health conditions, limited transportation, a family history of breathing issues. Her state refused to expand Medicaid, left her in dilapidated housing with raw sewage in her yard. She was the perfect target for the pandemic and she didn’t have the resources to protect herself from it.

Rush was a victim of the coronavirus — but she was also a victim of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, a war economy and a false moral narrative that rejected her right to live. In the richest country in world history, another path is possible. We won’t be silent anymore.

(The Rev. William Barber is president of Repairers of the Breach. The Rev. Liz Theoharis is the director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. They are co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.)