Since Monday, a group of 20 college students from the University of Arizona and Arizona State have been on hunger strike in an effort to pressure one of the most heavily criticized Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema, to take action on the passage of crucial voting reform legislation.
The students say they will be striking indefinitely until Arizona’s Sinema agrees to support the Freedom to Vote Act, a bill that would ensure fair election measures like automatic voter registration and the protection and expansion of vote by mail.
Their target is not easy. Sinema, who was once active in the Green party, has drifted far away from the progressive wing of her party and is now widely seen – along with West Virginia’s Joe Manchin – as a centrist roadblock on much of Joe Biden’s agenda. As such, she has earned the anger of many Democrats, from her fellow elected officials to grassroots organizers.
The Freedom to Vote Act would directly benefit those most affected by voter suppression laws and gerrymandering, especially Black and brown communities, immigrants and young voters, and voters with disabilities. The students are working with Un-Pac, a non-partisan group organizing in the hope of restoring the Voting Rights Act through the Freedom to Vote Act and eliminating gerrymandering, dark money and other threats to fair representation.
Since its introduction, the bill has been consistently opposed by Republican lawmakers and is held up in the Senate where it has been blocked by Republican senators. Despite his promise to restore the Voting Rights Act during his campaign, Biden and the Democratic majority have failed to advance any voting rights legislation this year, despite a broad push by Republicans across the US to pass laws restricting access to the ballot.
In 2021 alone, US Republicans have taken full advantage of the filibuster – the Senate rule requiring 60 votes to advance most legislation – and deterred voting rights bills on four different occasions. According to a recent report from the Brennan Institute for Justice, 19 states enacted 33 different laws that make it more difficult for citizens to vote after the 2020 election, in which record numbers of citizens went to the polls. At the same time there has been widespread gerrymandering in mostly Republican states, chipping away at Democratic seats and splitting up voters from communities of color.
Last week Sinema agreed to a private meeting with the students via Zoom, where she listened to their concerns and said she supported the passage of the legislation. However, she has a history of supporting the filibuster.
“We are very clear from that meeting that Senator Sinema understands our message – that we are hunger striking until the bill passes and we would rather make this sacrifice than suffer the consequences of inaction on federal voting rights and campaign finance reform now,” said Shana Gallagher, executive director of Un-Pac. “We now believe it is incumbent upon President Biden to call another vote before the end of the year.”
The students are now traveling to Washington DC, where Biden held the Summit for Democracy. Student organizers Brandon Ortega and Georgia Linden said the protestors will shift the pressure from Sinema and plan to continue striking indefinitely outside the White House in an effort to persuade Biden to talk to them and ultimately, pass the Freedom to Vote Act into law before the end of the year.
“We are honestly confused and disappointed that President Biden hasn’t prioritized this more,” said Gallagher. “We don’t understand why he’s not treating this existential issue with the urgency that we are, but we are still hopeful that he has time to change course and our sacrifice will help the administration to act.”
As of now, the group is hopeful of drawing the attention of the White House.
“We did not originally request a meeting with Sinema but when she found out about our action, she wanted to meet with us to express her commitment to this legislation,” said Gallagher. “Our remaining demand is a meeting with the Biden administration but as of now, we have not heard a response.”
The group is well aware that their hunger strike could last longer than they hope, but they are prepared for the hardships.
“It’s definitely been difficult, but we do have a medical team and a support team that is taking care of all of us,” said Ortega. “We’re grateful that we have dozens of people across the country doing solidarity fasts and vigils and there has been a lot of support, most notably from a group of veterans who came to the Arizona state house to thank us and to tell us they were humbled by our actions. 84% of Arizonians support this bill, so we’re united as a generation and as a state.”