News & Politics

Opinion: Congress must take action to ensure and expand voting rights

Philadelphia City Councilmember Nicolas O’Rourke writes that federal lawmakers hold the key to safeguarding voting rights.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Nicolas O'Rourke (center).

Philadelphia City Councilmember Nicolas O'Rourke (center). Chris Mansfield / PHL City Council

As an elected official and a faith leader serving the City of Philadelphia, I stand at the intersection of civic duty and spiritual commitment. From those perspectives, I recognize the vital importance of our city's well-being and the need for every voice to be heard. Our city’s challenges, from underfunded public schools to the overdose crisis, demand concerted actions, and one pillar for delivering material changes for Philadelphians is securing equitable access to civic participation.

Voting isn't just a civic duty; it is an expression of communal responsibility deeply rooted in faith and community building. Improving access to the ballot box demonstrates faith that the democratic process is a form of recourse that strengthens our neighborhoods – one desperately needed in Black neighborhoods and other historically disenfranchised communities.

I believe that voting, ideally, is the final step that an engaged citizen takes in strengthening our democracy, a biannual practice that buttresses the constant work of organizing and building up their community – critically, voting shapes the terrain upon which that wider organization takes place.

This is why I’m working with my fellow Councilmembers Isaiah Thomas, Anthony Phillips and Jay Young to help register over 2,000 Black men for the 2024 elections by the Oct. 23 registration deadline and secure their pledge to vote.

This initiative aims to reverse the troubling trend of declining voter turnout among Black precincts throughout the city. Just 17.7% of voters cast a ballot in Philly’s April primary, compared to about 32% in 2020 and 40% in 2016. But in the face of unprecedented threats to our fundamental rights, there’s a bracing urgency to ensure our system is one that is inclusive, free and open to all people.

However, our local efforts must be bolstered by comprehensive national action. Congress holds the key to safeguarding and enhancing voting rights, particularly in communities of color. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act stand as beacons of hope, honoring the legacy of movements for ballot access in America.

The first of these two bills is named in honor of the history and legacy of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis – a faith leader, organizer, Civil Rights icon and voting rights champion. If passed, it would restore and modernize the Voting Rights Act of 1965, preventing states from engaging in discriminatory practices that all too often target and restrict voter access in Black and minority communities.

Meanwhile, the Freedom to Vote Act would implement several much-needed and long-overdue reforms that would help strengthen voter protections and the integrity of our elections. The bill would expand access to early voting, increase transparency into political campaign donors and spending and eliminate the partisan gerrymandering that has allowed political leaders to redraw congressional borderlines to maintain power while disenfranchising voters.

For his part, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey has already clarified his position on these issues and this policy package. He understands the importance of preserving and expanding upon the voting rights legacy of the Civil Rights Revolution, itself the fruit of decades of sustained struggle stretching back to Reconstruction. I urge him to persist in his advocacy, ensuring that Pennsylvania remains at the forefront of safeguarding voting rights for all its citizens, especially those whose voices have historically been silenced.

In a time of unprecedented threats to our democratic principles, the passage of these bills is a moral imperative. Let us rally together, as elected officials and faith leaders, to protect and preserve the sanctity of our democracy for generations to come.

Nicolas V. O'Rourke is an at-large member of Philadelphia City Council, where he currently serves as minority whip. O’Rourke is the second Working Families Party member elected to serve on Philadelphia City Council.