Unite Here Hits the Road to Defend Voting Rights

Unite Here Hits the Road to Defend Voting Rights

Unite Here Hits the Road to Defend Voting Rights

The canvassers who flipped Arizona in 2020 have embarked on a new Freedom Ride to raise awareness of the For the People Act.


The Unite Here activists I profiled recently in my article on flipping Arizona blue have been on the campaign trail again. This time around, they were part of a week-long Freedom Ride from Arizona to Washington, D.C.—stopping in Tulsa, Okla., and Montgomery, Ala., among other places—aimed at highlighting the need for the Senate to pass SB 1. Known as the For the People Act, the bill would strengthen voting rights and limit the influence of money in political campaigning.

Crammed into four charter busses, 200 people, from union organizers to LGBTQ community activists to clergy to longtime civil rights activists—including aging participants in the original Freedom Summer voter registration drives from 1964—made their way across country. They held meetings and events on Juneteenth, in Tulsa; and at the Equal Justice Museum and the Lynching Museum, in Alabama. Once they arrived in D.C. late last week, they lobbied key senators to pass SB 1—and to convince reluctant Senate colleagues, such as Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, to limit the filibuster in order to further a progressive voting rights package and an economic justice agenda.

The freedom riders stayed in D.C. several days, meeting with New York Senator Chuck Schumer and California Senator Alex Padilla, holding teach-ins, and participating in a Black Voters Matter rally. They did not, however, manage to secure a meeting with Sinema. While she supports the broad principles of the For the People Act, the Arizona senator been remarkably reluctant to countenance a weakening of the filibuster rule in order to secure its passage.

“I did multiple tours in Iraq,” Unite Here team leader Marilyn Wilbur explained to me in frustration. “I didn’t come home to have my elected officials negate my voice at the ballot box. Once again, I’m defending democracy. I need my officials to stand up for democracy. The For the People Act has got to pass. I need Sinema to do right by us.”

Other union leaders such as Unite Here’s Susan Minato are also growing increasingly frustrated with Sinema’s intransigence. After all, it was their grassroots organizing that helped elect Sinema in 2018, and they worry that with Arizona’s GOP legislature ramming through changes that limit early voting options and remove tens of thousands of people from the early voter lists, the state is at serious risk of backsliding—of seeing lower rates of voter participation in future election cycles and a solidifying of GOP minority rule.

“We put out an invitation to Sinema, but she did not respond,” says Minato. “She has not made the time to meet with our people on the issue. We do expect she should speak to her constituents. We went 2,500 miles to D.C., and did not have a response.” By contrast, Minato points out, “Senator Padilla, from California, not only secured a spot for us to hold a rally but was the key speaker. I felt so proud that California’s US senator was right on point.”

For Marisela Mares, another experienced campaigner from the 2020 election season, the freedom ride was a chance to elevate the discussion of protecting voting rights into conversation about fundamental human rights. This isn’t about forging a “bipartisan” consensus, Mares says, her voice dripping with exasperation. “It’s a human rights issue. Like they moved mountains in the civil rights era, so we will convince Sinema to move on this.”

With the Senate in recess over the coming weeks, voting rights advocates from around the West are planning a summer of lobbying in Arizona to convince Senator Sinema to bend on the filibuster. Similar efforts are afoot in West Virginia, home to Senator Joe Manchin. The outcome of these efforts will likely have a huge impact on the country’s political processes and governing priorities for years to come.

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