Water. It is the source of all life, and the thing that sustains us. Throughout history, in literature and art and religion, water is the symbol of purity and clarity, of washing away one's sins. The depiction of a world reborn through a flood is common throughout many cultures, and it is with water that many are cleansed and baptized into God’s good graces. Increasingly, though, water is a measure of power, and invariably, a tool of oppression.
Last Thursday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law what can only be described as the most draconian of disenfranchisement efforts thus far seen as a result of the big election fraud lie of 2020. In response to the state’s runoff elections that fairly and squarely gave Democrats control of the U.S. Senate earlier this year, the Republican-led Georgia Legislature acted as only a Republican-led state legislature can: by fixing the rules going forward to ensure that in the future only the whitest and most Republican votes count.
Citing a phony desire to protect the “integrity” of the vote, the problematic new law will impose more onerous restrictions on mail in-voting, will limit the use of ballot drop boxes and completely disallow mobile polling sites, but will permit an unlimited number of challenges to a voter’s registration. All of these provisions are of course designed to prevent the most vulnerable groups, the poor, the marginalized, the Black voters especially, from casting ballots that would threaten the white conservative way of life. As Atlanta Rev. Tim McDonald pointed out, "They know it's being perceived as racist, but they are so racist that they don't care.”
But even among the many, many serious threats to democracy that the law imposes, there is one provision that has caught the most attention and outrage: the new law will make it a crime to give food or water to people standing in line to vote. Since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states previously subjected to federal oversight because of their historically racist efforts to disenfranchise Black voters wasted no time in implementing new ways to stop them. Among the most popular was limiting the number of polling places in urban and other areas where Black and other Democratic-leaning groups vote, leading to hours-long waits in line just to cast a ballot.
In response to this, many voting-rights, and yes, progressive organizations, mobilized to find ways to encourage people to stick it out and make their vote count, including by providing snacks and water. Georgia’s new prohibition on this practice, supposedly aims to prevent any undue influence on voters whose political principles are apparently so fragile as to be swayed by a slice of pizza. One of the many problems with this argument, however, is that electioneering restrictions at polling places already prevent partisan politicking under these circumstances in most states.
Here in Nevada, for example, election day volunteers are trained and strictly prohibited from raising or engaging in conversations about any candidates, or parties, or even ballot measures. I know because I’ve done it. If someone rightly guesses or assumes that the volunteers keeping them fed and encouraging them to make their voices heard lean progressive, then more than anything else, that speaks to the absence of conservative organizations doing the same.
The Georgia law in general frightens me as a precursor of what we can probably expect from voter disenfranchisement efforts in other states. In fact, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a bipartisan policy institute that tracks legislation across the country, at least 253 voter suppression bills have been introduced in 43 states, including two in Nevada (SB 84 and AB 137). It’s also what I’ve come to expect from a party that considers only a Republican vote to be a legitimate one and admits that its only hope to win elections in the future is to stack the deck. But the water prohibition has really struck a nerve with me, as with many others, because it runs much deeper and speaks to a much greater fight for the soul of who we are or want to be in this country.
For example, in 2018, Border Patrol arrested a volunteer working with No More Deaths, an organization whose mission is to provide humanitarian aid to people trekking across the Sonoran Desert, mostly undocumented immigrants. The organization routinely leaves plastic gallons of water out in the desert to prevent people from dying of heat exhaustion and dehydration. Customs and Border Patrol routinely dumps this water, in what is clearly a counter effort geared to make sure a maximum number of people do in fact die.
The arrested volunteer faced felony charges for “harboring,” a catchall word that essentially boils down to “help an immigrant, rot in jail you filthy hippie.” He was facing up to 20 years in prison for the crime of not letting people die before a unanimous jury found him not guilty in November 2019. But this was his second trial, the first having been declared a mistrial because a hung jury couldn’t agree that he did not in fact deserve to go to jail (again, because I simply have to highlight this point) for the ever so un-American act of not letting people die of thirst in the desert.
I am thinking also of Flint, Michigan, markedly a predominantly Black city, that nearly seven years after officials took it upon themselves to draw contaminated water from the Flint River without properly treating it, still does not have access to clean water. What ensued and what continues is nothing short of a man-made, wholly preventable crime against humanity.
So when I hear of Georgia and other states restricting water, a necessary source of sustenance, to voters exercising a fundamental right, I can’t help but put it into context with what is happening in Flint and at the border. And it makes me think of all the religious folks out there, particularly the Christians, who love to point to our Judeo-Christian roots. For those out there more versed in the Bible than me, remember when Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Does that apply to us or nah? Does it apply to Republicans?
I am neither religious nor conservative, but I will be damned if I let someone go hungry or thirsty in my presence when I have the means to prevent it. Is that just human decency or yet another thing that makes my liberal little bleeding heart un-American to some of you? That’s what I think my issue boils down to, that for many, the two are mutually exclusive.
Martha E. Menendez, Esq. is the Bernstein Senior Fellow at the UNLV Immigration Clinic.