The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Voting rights advocates hold hunger strike near White House

College students and recent graduates assemble near the White House during their hunger strike calling for Congress and the president to pass the Freedom to Vote Act. (Courtesy of un-PAC advocacy group)

They tried to do this any other way.

For months, they listened to Democrats talk about passing voting rights legislation over Republican objections. They wrote emails, canvassed and called lawmakers, urging them to protect the country’s democracy. They saw other liberal protesters marching in the nation’s capital all summer, getting arrested to bring attention to their fight.

None of it, they said, seemed to be enough.

So last week in Phoenix, a group of 20 college students and recent graduates stopped eating.

In starving themselves, they hoped politicians at the U.S. Capitol and White House would finally act with the urgency they say this crisis of democracy demands.

“We’d rather suffer through this hunger strike than to suffer the consequences of this bill not being passed,” said Brandon Ortega, a third-year student at Arizona State University who has not eaten since the hunger strike began Dec. 6. “We’re really committed to hold out as long as we can.”

The group planned to stay outside the state Capitol in Phoenix, and focus their pressure on Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to support passing the Freedom to Vote Act, a federal voting rights bill. But to their surprise, Sinema spoke with them on Day Four. They left that meeting thinking their message needed to be elevated.

On Day Five — Friday — they flew to Washington, where new hunger strikers who heard about their protest joined them outside the White House. The group is demanding that Democrats pass federal voting rights legislation before next year, amid concern over the 2022 midterm elections.

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But by Day Nine — Tuesday — their bodies seemed to be shutting down.

Too weak to walk long distances, they used wheelchairs to get to their protest spot at Lafayette Square. One hunger striker said it felt like knives were poking at her stomach. Another said she had lost more than 10 pounds. Others had to stop fasting on the advice of a doctor who checks their vital signs twice a day.

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But those who were able to continue kept showing up, encouraging each other to drink water, rest and finish college assignments.

“I think my body’s just kind of like giving up on me a little bit,” said Emma Shockley, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s kind of sad that we have to do what we’re doing, but … we’re willing to do whatever it takes.”

The students are part of un-PAC, which describes itself as a nonpartisan advocacy group launched in March that employs student organizers and whose first campaign has been to pressure legislators to pass federal democracy reform legislation.

As they struggled through Day Nine, the activists received a boost from some Texas state legislators they admire: Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin) and Jasmine Crockett (D-Dallas), who is running for Congress.

“Don’t think people are not paying attention because they are. Don’t think for a minute that you’re not making an impact because you are,” Martinez Fischer told the demonstrators.

Democratic lawmakers rally in D.C. to demand the passage of voting rights legislation

He was among the Texas Democrats who broke quorum in May to block the passage of a restrictive voting bill. That group flew to Washington to turn up pressure on President Biden and Congress to pass federal voting rights protections to override the restrictions that Republicans in Texas and other states were trying to pass.

“When the history book is written on Freedom to Vote, and on the John Lewis Advancement Act, President Biden is signing those proposals into law, we’re all going to have a chapter in that story,” he said, “and yours is happening right now.”

Kyla Frank, 23, nodded as she listened, her hands clasped atop a pink journal detailing the hunger strike. As she flipped through the pages, she pointed out notes of solidarity from speakers who encouraged the group throughout the hunger strike.

Frank has participated in the hunger strike since Day One and has been drinking about 5 liters of regular water and three bottles of electrolyte-enhanced water per day. By Day Three, she felt like she was “hit by a train.” She has lost 13 pounds.

She said she is motivated to stand up for voting rights after watching her mother work so hard to care for her and her siblings.

“A lot of the struggles that she faced are a direct result of corruption in our politics that prevents our government from protecting people who are most vulnerable,” said Frank, a graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the District and Virginia State University.

In the last presidential election, she voted for Biden, hoping that he would fix a system she viewed as broken.

“He promised a lot of things,” Frank said. “If any of those promises are going to be seen this year, next year, we need to prioritize voting rights so people can have a pathway to getting those issues across the finish line.”