Local leaders commemorate Lewis’ death with discussion on threats to democracy and voting access

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Franklin Mayor Olivia Zink. Photo/Andrew Sylvia

MANCHESTER, N.H. – Local elected officials and activists gathered at the Hop Knot on Elm Street on Friday morning to commemorate the upcoming anniversary of Congressman John Lewis’ death and discuss election-related legislation in Washington as well as other election-related issues in New Hampshire.

Lewis, a U.S. Representative from Georgia from 1987 until his death on July 17, 2020, was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, serving as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966.

Following his death, H.R. 4, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, was unofficially renamed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act in his honor. That bill, along with H.R. 1, the “For The People Act” aim to reform national election standards in various ways with the ultimate goal of facilitating voting for all Americans.

While those bills provided a capstone to Friday’s discussion, the roughly half-hour long roundtable touched upon other topics ranging from Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig talking about the importance of absentee ballot access in the city during the COVID-19 pandemic to Manchester NAACP President James McKim speaking on the need to help legislators better understand the challenges facing some voters.

Franklin, NH Mayor and Executive Director of Open Democracy Olivia Zink told the panel that she believes there are bad actors and certain politicians who wish to win elections by suppressing voters rather than convincing voters to agree with their policies.

She noted that if those groups, such as in the “Stop the Steal” movement, are successful and the For the People Act is not passed, it would spell the end of American democracy.

“I hope we do not choose the insurrection method of taking over the Capitol, like we saw on January 6th, we choose a different path of electing leaders who have integrity in the process,” said Zink.

Zink also challenged criticism of H.R. 1 by New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner that it would limit New Hampshire’s ability to run its own elections by citing other federal election legislation that others once thought would have a similar negative impact such as the Help America Vote Act.

Zink’s organization helped pass 74 resolutions at town meetings across the state this year urging elected officials to act against gerrymandering efforts, stating that the resolutions had bipartisan support using Merrimack as an example. The same day her group’s resolution passed there, Republican Bill Boyd defeated Democrat Wendy Thomas in a special election to the New Hampshire House of Representatives to replace late House Speaker Dick Hinch while the resolution passed in Merrimack by a 3-to-1 margin.

While several members of the roundtable said that there has been an undue burden on minority voters in new legislation across the country that they see as efforts to limit voter access, former State Senator Melanie Levesque (D-Brookline) believes that minorities are just one group that would suffer with decreased access to voting.

“The state of voting rights for minorities is not just for minorities,” said Levesque, the first female African-American state senator in New Hampshire history and former chair of the New Hampshire Senate Election Law Committee. “Voting rights are being suppressed not just for minorities, but for students, for seniors, for people who care about public schools. It does impact minorities, but it ultimately impacts all of us.”

The event was organized by 603 Forward and the New Hampshire Coalition for Voting Rights. For 603 Forward Chair Lucas Meyer says that work still needs to be done and ultimately will always need to be done in order to safeguard democracy in the United States.

“It is irrefutable that black and brown voters and young voters are being targeted in attempts to limit their access to elections. That fight hasn’t ended and that fight is everything that John Lewis stood for,” “Now it’s incumbent on the leaders here today and Americans across the country to continue his fight because the reality is this is like Sisyphus, if we take our hands off the ball, we’ll get streamrolled. So when we get (this legislation) passed, we’ll need to continue the fight to protect (democracy.)”