Together, our voices will be heard! (With pictures!!)

With all eyes on Philadelphia as the State Supreme Court heard arguments over Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Law on Thursday, September 13, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) led a press conference in Pittsburgh to voice outrage over the law and pledge to help every eligible voter have the identification he or she needs to cast a vote should the law be upheld.

PIIN was joined by many partners – B-PEP, the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, One Pittsburgh, the We Are One Coalition and the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, among others – along with many local activisits to show unity around this extremely important issue.

“We have assembled here outside the Allegheny County Office Building, across communities, across faiths for one very simple reason: We believe that every eligible voter should be able to cast his or her vote,” PIIN vice president Jonathan Mayo said in his opening remarks. “Period. End of story. Not everyone feels that way.”

Reverend Dave McFarland from the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church began the program, as is PIIN’s custom, with a word of prayer. Rabbi Ron Symons from Temple Sinai and PIIN President and Reverend Richard Freeman from Resurrection Baptist Church then spoke about voting rights from both a faith and a historical perspective, showing just how morally imperative it is for the community to come together to keep the Voter ID law from suppressing votes.

Rabbi Symons used the bible as a guide, quoting from his own writings about the mitzvah (a worthy deed) of voting.

“The Torah teaches us, ‘God spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the Desert of Sinai on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt,’ Rabbi Symons wrote. “He said:  ‘Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one….’ (Numbers 1)  Leaving aside the gender bias of generations past, I read this mandate to take a census as a mandate to have every person count.  “Take a census” s’u et rosh, is better translated as “lift up the head of every person in the community”.  The mandate to count is not to count from a mountain top, as modern public officials would determine the size of a large crowd by estimating frofm a helicopter as they do for rallies or open air concerts.  The Torah mandate to count requires that each person presents him/herself as a unique individual and is looked in the eye by the counting official.  It is a very personal experience the foundation of which is “every individual soul counts in a unique way.” (Click here for Rabbi Symons’ complete thoughts on the Mitzvah of Voting)

Rev. Freeman followed with his own passionate words, coming from his own faith tradition.

“Today, we unite our voices for the causes of freedom and justice. We know the early formers of our nation so valued the sanctity of voting that they codified it in one our nation’s hallowed documents… The Constitution of the United States of America.  The 15th Amendment to the Constitution granted African American men the right to vote by declaring that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Although ratified on February 3, 1870, the promise of the 15th Amendment would not be fully realized for almost a century. Through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other means, Southern states were able to effectively disenfranchise African Americans. It would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the majority of African Americans in the South were registered to vote. The truth surrounding the voting rights act of 1965 was that many poor non-Blacks were also given the right to vote by its enactment. The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits any United States citizen to be denied the right to vote based on sex. It was ratified on August 18, 1920. Here we stand today almost exactly 101 years after the constitution was ratified giving women the right to vote, continuing to fight for the unfettered access to the ballot box. Although the exact audience for whom the Voter ID sought to disenfranchise is veiled, it is evident that it has ensnared a great cross-section of Pennsylvanians. Newly married women, you may be on the verge of being disenfranchised, senior citizens, you may be on the verge of being disenfranchised. Poor people, people of color, minorities, new  and old Pennsylvania residents you may all have your right to vote on November 6th denied. Prophets of old heralded warnings when leadership had led the people astray. Today we call on the leadership of the commonwealth and the Supreme to remove this farce. In the words of the prophet Amos, “…let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Click here for Rev. Freeman’s complete thoughts.)

State representative Bill Kortz (38th District) talked about how the law was passed and the impact the lawmakers who passed it hoped it would have. He was followed by Steven Singer, a local teacher-turned-activist. Just prior to the press event, Singer and others delivered petitions with more than 17,000 signatures on it to elections officials to voice their opposition to the law. As Singer wrote in his description of his day, “It was a moving experience to see people of all walks of life – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Quakers, atheists, etc. – come together in opposition to voter suppression. After many thanks all around, tearful hand clasps and hugs, we went our separate ways secure in the knowledge that whatever happens from here we know what Democracy looks like.”

We heard just how ugly it can look like from Father Rodge Wood, the former Rector of Christ Episcopal, who re-told a story about a poll worker during the primaries who told Father Wood, point blank, that the law was intended to stop voters who “looked like our president.”

Those who came to this event, as well as those planning programs, actions and drives now and leading up to Election Day, are standing together to prove that this kind of systematic disenfranchisement won’t work. Celeste Taylor, who represented both B-PEP and the Voter ID Coalition at the press conference, talked about such efforts to offset voter suppression. She urged people to call 1-866-OUR-VOTE to get the information they need.

The law is now back in the hands of the Commonwealth Court and it’s unclear whether it will stand or be wiped off the books. But as this gathering downtown and all the efforts in and around our community prove, it doesn’t matter what happens with the law. The community is energized and mobilized and ready to make sure everyone gets to the polls.

After Imam Atef from the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh gave a closing prayer, the group outside the Allegheny County Building finished with a very fitting song, one that symbolized exactly what all will do to make sure the intent of the law – to suppress the vote – never comes to fruition.

This little VOTE of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little VOTE of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little VOTE of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

To that, I think we can all say AMEN!


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