Continue MLK’s Work to ‘Make Real the Promises of Democracy’ by Fighting for Voting Rights in Pennsylvania

New Pennsylvania Project CEO Kadida Kenner's keynote address on voting rights at the 34th Annual Dr. King Commemorative event Sunday in Media, PA.

Thank you Cynthia Ann Jetter, Amy Komarnicki, James Mason, Bianca Blake, and everyone from the NAACP Media area branch and the Media Fellowship House who took part in organizing today’s 34th Annual MLK Commemoration and Spirit Hall of Fame Awards. 

Congratulations to Akeiff Staples and Brent Johnstone of FathersRead365 for their well deserved recognition for engaging and inspiring the youth. There’s truly something special about working with today’s youth. I’m sure you both can attest to their young brilliance, and the tough  and inquisitive questions they ask. 

I’m honored to be asked to deliver today’s Keynote address on the day Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have celebrated his 94th birthday. Today we commemorate and honor the tireless work of Dr. King and the woman who enabled it, Mrs. Corretta Scott King – who should also be recognized on this day.

In addition to being humbled by also receiving the Spirit Award, I’ve been asked to speak about voting rights – and the fight to ensure they remain intact – some 65 years after Dr. King’s assassination. I’m here today to tell you, our very rights and freedoms, that include our freedom to vote are in peril, especially in Pennsylvania, and especially today. And that the fierce urgency of now dictates we involve our beloved communities, and especially the youth to protect our freedoms and rights – once again.

I have the honor of leading an organization, as the CEO, that works tirelessly to protect our freedom to vote and expand the electorate. Two years ago this month, I was approached by a group of stakeholders and concerned Pennsylvanians about my thoughts following the 2020 election, and about how we can get more Pennsylvanians registered to vote in order to secure more political and electoral wins. 

At the time, I was the director of campaigns for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, and I had spent the previous four years advocating to raise the minimum wage in PA, ensuring our public schools were fairly and equitably funded, working to move policy for free college tuition in the Commonwealth and what I hope to be my legacy – defending the independence of our courts and ensuring everyone understands their importance, and why we must advocate that they remain the firewall against problematic policies from the legislative branch. 

Advocacy around an independent judiciary is paramount, as those in power in Harrisburg worked in an attempt to impeach our Supreme Court justices for overturning gerrymandered Congressional maps. And the previous leader of the free world worked to make the federal judiciary the whitest and most dangerous it has been since the Reagan administration. I’ve gone to jail three times on that last one – inspired by a meeting I had with the NAACP Allentown Branch and one lifelong work of my heroes, the honorable John Lewis. Angelic troublemaking can be addictive and I’m due for another act of civil disobedience.

So when Pennsylvania stakeholders asked me for my opinion about how change could happen at the ballot box I had a few ideas. I knew the way our beloved communities could begin to see our needs met through policy – and not from any particular political party, and any one particular candidate; and to also realize a more representative democracy, and better realize economic, reproductive, criminal and legislative justice – it was going to happen at the ballot box – as Dr. and Mrs. King, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin, and so many others worked so hard to achieve decades ago.

I also knew that in order to get the communities closest to the pain closest to the power, we would have to work to ensure those very communities are compelled to get involved and vote. 

Three months after that initial conversation with those powerful Pennsylvania stakeholders who asked for my thoughts, I decided to leave my good job with the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center and take a leap of faith, and take on the role and responsibility of leading what is today the New Pennsylvania Project and the New PA Project Education Fund. 

The New Pennsylvania Project is named in homage of the New Georgia Project and the work of its founders, Nse Ufot and Stacey Abrams, as their organization worked to empower Black Georgians. Both women have moved on from the New Georgia Project, and it is now being led by my sister in solidarity, CEO Kendra Cotton. 

If you didn’t know – Georgia is now at a 95% voter registration rate. That means 95% of all Georgians are registered to vote. That’s an incredible feat as so many continue to work incredibly hard to disenfranchise and suppress the vote down South to this day. 

That also doesn’t absolve Pennsylvania and other northern states, as I like to refer to Pennsylvania as the most northern southern state on various issues. We have our own imminent threats as those in power in Pennsylvania are looking to add additional barriers to the ballot with more restrictive voter ID laws. Although, we already have one in the books and it’s effective. And those in power want to add those barriers through a constitutional amendment, because when unpopular bills without bipartisan support can’t move legislatively, legislating by constitutional amendment is the work around. I remind you of this because we might see a constitutional amendment question on our ballots this May to enact a more restrictive voter ID law. 

Make no mistake, enacting more restrictive measures isn’t a way to further secure elections for those who still believe in the Big Lie, it’s a policy to suppress votes and disenfranchise our beloved communities, as we will bear the greatest brunt. I’ll come back to this when I offer the call to action.

The New Pennsylvania Project is a voting rights organization officially founded in May of 2021 when I accepted the position of executive director and amended the theory of change. The organization centers Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, immigrant communities and the youth in our work. 

Here’s a not so fun fact: in Pennsylvania, only one in four high schoolers who are eligible to vote are actually registered. 

To put this into perspective, If you have four grandchildren of voting age, the odds are only one of them is registered. 

I’d ask that you feel free to send a text message, or drop by their DMs, after I finish this keynote, and find out.

The work of the New Pennsylvania Project is year-round work – not just advocacy around election season. It is our mission to expand the electorate in often ignored and disenfranchised communities through civic engagement and education. We meet people where they are in the hopes we can help these communities build power and begin to have their voices heard, and their needs met through voting – and voting consistently.

There are 1.7 million Pennsylvanians who are eligible to vote but don’t or won’t. That’s approximately 20% of eligible Black folks – eligible to vote but don’t; 31% of Latinos in PA – eligible to vote but don’t and 42% of Asian Pacific Islanders – eligible to vote but don’t. 

We don’t throw shade at these folks because we know there’s legitimate reasons they decided to stay out of the electorate – and there’s a solid common reason  – they’ve been disenfranchised from participating. For some, it’s an access issue, materials and resources are not in the languages they speak. For others, the system has been designed and rigged to keep them from the ballot and the polls. And for some we engage, they feel as though their votes don’t matter because they believe, “what will be will be.” And if we’ve learned anything these last few years – political theater is on the rise – and it suppresses votes. As an organization, we encounter that last argument more frequently than you’d imagine.

So what do we do about it? It’s time to get involved, get more involved, or get re-involved. Our voting rights are in peril in Pennsylvania. 

Let’s go back to restrictive voter ID laws. Some will say, how hard is it to get an ID, you need it to write a check (not too many folks doing that anymore), to buy liquor or enter a government building – let’s provide a little context and reality for them. 

How many of you knew of knew of Ms. Vivette Applewhite of Philadelphia?

– Was nearing 100 years old

– Plaintiff in 2012 voter ID Commonwealth Court case

– Why she might not have an ID –  not uncommon for someone born 100 years ago to not have access to documents that prove birth, or have other documents necessary to cast a ballot

– Disenfranchising one person is disenfranchising one too many

Some of you may have heard about Stacey Abrams and even our own governor-elect who have both softened on voter ID. And we need to talk about this because Voter ID is a popular idea for many – especially for those who may not understand the barrier it presents for particular communities, and the impact voting to change the constitution – without recourse – would have on our future freedoms.

Here’s my thoughts. Most likely without a massive and expensive effort to push back on the ballot question – if it appears before us in May – Voter ID will pass. Pennsylvanians will vote yes – as Pennsylvanians have voted yes on every single constitutional amendment question that has been put before them since the mid 1990s.

We must advocate to counter this barrier. We must reach out to our legislators – some of them in this room currently who are supportive, and others who would never attend an event like today’s, and let them know that if legislation or a constitutional amendment is going to be passed, we need something in exchange. 

We need same day voting (like in North Carolina), we need early voting (souls to polls – like in Georgia) and we need automatic voter registration like several progressive states in the nation. We can’t allow those in power to enact a barrier without an alternative that would actually expand the electorate. 

My final thoughts on today: It is shameful that too many of those making empty lip service today and tomorrow, are in fact, fighting to uphold the very same systems of oppression Dr. King fought against. 

Our youth, immigrants, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are especially far too familiar with restrictive voter ID laws, intentionally excessive mail-in ballot requirements, voter purges, uncooperative voting hours meant to stifle the working class, excessively long lines, and so much more. 

Every day we must continue to fight for our democracy. 

No matter how many “MLK appreciation” tweets, emails, or press releases we see from those responsible for this injustice, as long as they continue to implement and defend more barriers to the ballot box, they will continue to be nothing but lip service.

In true homage to the continued fight, we reaffirm Dr. King’s statement that “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” 

We will not wait. 

So heed this call to action. Get your phones busy and contact legislators, neighbors, your grandchildren. Spread the word because the majority of folks don’t know what’s happening in Harrisburg – they’re too busy trying to put food on the table and clothes on their kids’ backs.

Make sure you’re registered to vote or update your registration. 

-Closed primary state – need to register with a political party to vote in primary elections for candidates

-Moved

-Name change

-Want to switch political parties?

I want to thank some of the NPP staffers who are here today, including Dyneco Gibson. They can assist you get registered or re-registered today. It’ll take two minutes of your time. 

The New Pennsylvania Project will continue to fight for what’s fair and what’s just in honor of Dr. King, Mrs. King and every single person who fought for Civil Rights. 

Lastly – Bayard Rustin: “The proof that one truly believes is in action.”

Thank you for your time and your activism.

Kadida Kenner

Kadida Kenner

Kadida Kenner is the CEO of the New Pennsylvania Project, a statewide voting rights organization with a primary focus on voter registration, civic engagement and mobilization, and co-chair of Why Courts Matter — Pennsylvania, a campaign educating Pennsylvanians about the importance of the independence of both the federal and state courts. She writes from Chester County.

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