Rev. Barber: Poor people can produce top to bottom change on Election Day
Just 50 Days before the election, the Rev. William Barber and his New Poor People's Campaign, launched a drive to bring about a huge turnout of poor people to the polls. | AP

With 50 days to go until the November election, the New Poor People’s Campaign is embarking on a double-pronged mass mobilization campaign: Energizing a large share of the nation’s poor and low-income people to vote on or better yet, before, November 3, and helping the NAACP to activate its structure to protect that right and those votes.

NPPC co-chair, the Rev. William Barber II, told the two-hour session on September 14 that if a higher share of the nation’s 140 million-plus economically struggling people turn out and vote for candidates who support their economic agenda this fall, they could turn the tide in races, from the presidency on down, in the wide swath of states from Maryland all the way south to Florida and west to Texas, at least.

“One-third of the electorate, 63 million voters, is poor or low-income,” he said. But in the last presidential election, only 29 million of them voted. If more did so this time, their impact would extend nationwide, he pointed out.

As one example, Barber added that in 2016, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump carried three key Great Lakes states–Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—by fewer than 100,000 votes combined. “But 2.6 million poor people didn’t vote” in those states.

If they do this time, everything changes. “The coming together of poor and low-income people could break through” on issues they care about. “Millions of poor and low-income people must shift the agenda.”

The mass mobilization includes not just voter registration and actual turnout, but also protecting that right to vote and making sure those votes are counted this fall. That led to the second half of the session, with voter protection instruction from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“We need you to be our eyes and ears” against voter intimidation, oppression, and denial of the right to vote, LDF Executive Director Sherrilyn Ifill told the crowd, convened via Zoom. The whole two-hour “Voting Is Power Unleashed” session, including the training of volunteers, is at facebook.com/anewppc/videos.

Those anti-voter tactics came into play, though the speakers did not say so, in some of those key swing states, including Barber’s home North Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida, and Pennsylvania. In Wisconsin alone, tens of thousands of voters of color were barred from casting ballots in Milwaukee—so many that they exceeded Trump’s margin in the Badger State.

Voting in huge numbers could elect supporters of the NPPC agenda, Barber and other speakers said. The agenda includes redirecting money away from the military towards housing, education, and other human needs, battling systematic racism and white nationalism, and transforming the economy to work for the many, not the few by, among other moves, expanding access to health care, raising the minimum wage and strengthening worker rights.

It also, especially, includes restoring and protecting the right to vote. “We are readying ourselves to save the heart and soul of our democracy,” said Barber’s co-chair, the Rev. Liz Theoharis.

The catch, however, is finding candidates willing to listen and to commit to that agenda. Barber noted that despite at least 40% of the U.S. being poor or low-income, and with most of them being working poor, candidates from the White House to the state house have avoided the issue of widespread poverty.

But he gave the top two another chance. The NPPC invited both former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, and GOP White House occupant Trump, his foe, to address the “Voting Is Power Unleashed” session. Biden did so. Trump, despite repeated requests, did not.

But Biden, given the opportunity to discuss specifics poor people raised in the NPPC’s video, instead reiterated his standard speech, which also endorses many of the specifics the NPPC demands.

Those include the $15 an hour federal minimum wage, tripling federal funding for schools that serve poor and low-income kids, expanding the reach of the Affordable Care Act and immediately opening it to people who are jobless, comprehensive immigration reform, criminal justice system reform as part of the wider battle against systemic racism, and lifting the burden of student debt.

And, responding to one demand that adequate housing, like health care, should be a human right, Biden responded by reiterating his administration would enforce fair housing laws and crack down particularly against redlining.

“We often talk about the work left undone, and how often our politics doesn’t speak to the 140 million people” who are poor or low-income, the former VP admitted. “I promise you we could not only talk about it, but do something about it.”

Ifill spent her time, before turning the session over to tutors on both voting and how to protect it, exhorting the crowd not just to be “eyes and ears” at the polls this fall, but to vote absentee wherever possible and as early as possible, despite “attacks on absentee voting” from “the highest levels,” including the White House, though she did not name Trump.

“The Legal Defense Fund is in courts around the South trying to relax restrictions on absentee voting,” but also battling other voter suppression and intimidation, she said.

Those efforts to slam turnout by Black, brown, indigenous, female, and young voters, as well as workers, range from voting roll purges to sudden closures of polling places in neighborhoods of color to outright intimidation, she noted.

And she wants young people to step up and be election poll workers, too.

In prior elections, older and retired people handled duties at precinct polling places, Ifill explained. But those volunteers are understandably concerned about exposing themselves to the coronavirus pandemic threat, which has killed more people over age 64 than it has for any other age cohort.

“We need fully staffed polling places,” she said. “We had problems in the primaries. On Election Day, we can expect long lines, voting machine malfunctions, intimidation, polling place changes, and all kinds of shenanigans.”

“And we’ll be ready to go into courtrooms to pressure local officials” not just to let people vote no matter how long they must wait, but to ensure all votes are counted, she promised.

ELECTION 2020: Everything you need to know to vote in your state


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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