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Only 11 Black Senators in U.S. History

January 2021: Georgia elects its first ever Black senator. Reverend Raphael Warnock, now a U.S. Senator, joins a short list of Black senators in our country, becoming the 11th Black person to serve in the U.S. Senate and the first Black senator from Georgia. In the same month, Kamala Harris, the 10th Black senator, becomes the first Black, South Asian American, and woman to be inaugurated as vice president of our country. This is a glorious moment in our history. As we celebrate the joy of shifting the norm from majority white male leaders, we cannot help but think about how many other milestones would have happened by now if racism and pervasive voter suppression was not silencing the voices of people of color.  

Attempts to keep certain voices from being heard via voting is a practice that is as old as our country’s founding. We’ve seen moments in history where our government worked to further those often-silenced voices. Once in 1920, when white women gained the right to vote with the 19th Amendment, and again in 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed outlawing discriminatory voting practices. But then in 2013, the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby v. Holder stripped critical pieces of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowing states to create and make changes to voting laws without federal oversight and paving the way for more voter suppression laws, policies, and practices. Specifically, this ruling made it easier for states to implement discriminatory policies that disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities. Since the ruling, Georgia became just one of many states that have implemented some of the most egregious voting laws targeted at communities of color, such as voter ID laws, unlawful voter purges, and burdensome proof of citizenship requirements. 

Senator Warnock’s win comes not only because of his ability to serve the people of Georgia, but also as the result of the fight against voter suppression in the 2020 election. Black women, including Stacey Abrams, Latosha Brown, Nse Ufot, and countless other organizers whose names we do not know led the charge in Georgia to ensure that as many voters as possible were able to cast their ballots in the 2020 General Election and in the Georgia run-off election.  

This work came in response not only to the ongoing attempts of voter suppression over the years, but also to the flat-out voter suppression tactics we saw in 2018. During the 2018 mid-term elections, Black voters in Georgia experienced long lines, voter purges, and strict voter ID laws. Despite her efforts, Stacey Abrams lost her run for governor in Georgia by a slim margin and responded by launching Fair Fight – an organization dedicated to ensuring free and fair elections – mobilizing millions of voters across the country to get out and vote. Her work and the work of others to ensure that the voter suppression effects of 2018 were not repeated shows why we need legislation like the For the People Act (H.R.1) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R.4) to be passed by Congress. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 election looked quite different than any election before. States were forced to amend their voting laws, expanding voting, moving registration deadlines, increasing access to early voting options, to ensure that voters could cast their ballots safely without threatening their health. Months after giving voters more access than ever to cast ballots, we see many states, Georgia included, rushing to implement more restrictions on voting following the historic voter turnout of the 2020 elections. Following the 2020 election, several bills were introduced in the Georgia legislature including restricting vote by mail, increasing voter purge activity, and eliminating the ability of third parties to support voters by mail and registration activities. Across the country, state legislators are proposing voting legislation to add more restrictions to voting, despite being shown that expanding access to the ballot increases voter participation and turnout. These restrictions will increase unnecessary barriers to voting that will continue to negatively impact voters of color, seniors, the poor, and women.  

We must continue the fight against policies and procedures that allow voters’ voices to be silenced. Voter suppression comes in many forms, but the people have the power to fight against it. We must continue to hold our elected members of Congress and state legislators accountable for laws that have a disparate impact on voters of color and push legislatures to create inclusive laws that gives equal access to all voters. But, more importantly, we must celebrate these firsts for Black people—Senator Warnock and Vice President Harris, with hope for many more historic wins for people of color to come.