A sign directs voters at Soldotna City Hall on March 5, 2019. (Peninsula Clarion file)

A sign directs voters at Soldotna City Hall on March 5, 2019. (Peninsula Clarion file)

Locals to join national voting rights march Saturday

The march in Soldotna is part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Action

The Many Voices social justice advocacy group will be participating in a national march in Soldotna on Saturday, demanding widespread voting rights expansion and legislation.

Susie Smalley, one of the co-founders of Many Voices, said on Thursday that the day of action aligns with the group’s mission statement to advocate for diversity, justice and equality to promote a safer and healthier community.

“It’s good educationally, and it’s also good for community members to get together to support something that’s positive,” Smalley said. “Because voting is a great commodity.”

The march in Soldotna is part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Action, a day in which participating communities will demonstrate their support for President Joe Biden and the U.S. Congress to deliver on widespread voting rights legislation, according to the movement’s website.

A part of the day of action is calling on politicians to end the filibuster — or process to prolong debate and delay voting — on two bills: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would allow the federal government to oversee state voting laws to prevent voter discrimination, and the Freedom to Vote Act, which would create national regulations for voting by mail and early voting, among other issues.

Biden this week said that he thinks the filibuster is being abused to block voting rights legislation that is fundamental to democracy, the Washington Post reported.

Michele Vasquez, another co-founder of Many Voices, said one of the principal reasons she’s demonstrating Saturday is because she thinks restricting voting rights for certain people damages democracy.

“I feel like we’re going backwards,” she said. “It’s been on my mind; it’s been very troublesome, very worrying, because they’re going after mainly people of color.”

Vasquez grew up in South Carolina, and was a child during the civil rights movement. She said she remembers being exposed to racism both in her community and family during that time.

“My father was a racist, and my mother divorced him before I was 6 years old,” Vasquez said. “I don’t think she was actively involved with civil rights, but she taught us that … all people, regardless of race, background, religion, whatever, should be treated fairly and equally.”

She said she remembers watching King’s funeral on TV when she was in junior high school, after he was assassinated in Tennessee in 1968.

“I was very aware of racism and separation and all the segregation,” Vasquez said. “I remember water fountains that said ‘colored only.’”

The United States has a long history of restricting voting rights for marginalized people.

In 1776, only white, male, land-owning Protestants 21 and older were granted the right to vote. Over time, voting rights were expanded to all English-speaking white men, some Black men, white women, Native Americans, people of Asian descent, Black people, and those 18 years and older, according to the Historical Society of the New York Courts.

But along the way, many people of color — especially Black people — have had to jump through hoops to assert their right to vote.

Violence, literacy tests, property-owning prerequisites, legislation that prohibited Black people from voting if their grandfathers hadn’t voted before 1867, voting taxes, former prisoners, and other restrictions often excluded people of color from voting in the Jim Crow era from about 1900 to 1965, according to America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

Some have even credited the war on drugs and the federal justice system as being “the new Jim Crow,” keeping many Black and Hispanic people from voting.

The United States government currently doesn’t permit certain people, such as noncitizens — including permanent legal residents — some people with felony convictions and some people who are mentally incapacitated, to vote in federal, state and most local elections.

Additionally, the nearly 4 million citizens living in the United States territories of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are not able to vote for president in the general election.

Vasquez said her youth during the ‘60s and ‘70s in the South affected her and is part of the reason she participates in social justice movements today.

“I saw a lot of things that I wish I’d never seen; I heard a lot of things I wish I’d never heard growing up,” Vasquez said. “This is democracy. If we lose, if we sit by and let the right to vote be disenfranchised for so many of our citizens, then we fail at democracy.”

Smalley said as a white woman, she was never a direct target of racism, which is part of the reason she’s showing up on Saturday.

“According to my teachers and community, (civil rights) really had nothing to do with us,” she said.

Growing up in the West, Smalley said, she was removed from a lot of the tumult of the civil rights movement in the South. When she was waiting on her drink and fries at a restaurant in Astoria, Oregon, in the early ‘60s, she said, Black people were being threatened in another part of the country.

“I didn’t learn these things until much later, and some of them much, much later,” Smalley said. “And because of that, I also feel more compelled.”

She also said working local elections and seeing firsthand how many people distrust the process is also motivating her to join in the day of action on Saturday.

“It’s really challenging for me to work in elections now, because people come in — people I know, people who live in the same precinct — come in and question, basically the honesty of the process,” Smalley said. “For me, that’s a personal affront.”

She said Saturday’s event is going to be centered on optimism.

“A lot of it is education, because people tend to believe their fears as opposed to their hope,” Smalley said. “So I think we’re kind of in the range of hopefulness.”

The Many Voices advocacy group will meet at noon on Saturday at Soldotna Creek Park to participate in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Action in support of voting rights legislation. The demonstration is open to the public.

For more information follow the Many Voices Facebook page.

Reach reporter Camille Botello at camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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