Indeed, the bill would “require states to allow at least two weeks of early voting for federal elections (including weekends) for a period of at least 10 hours per day, including some early morning and evening hours” according to the Brennan Center. This provision is pivotal because it aims to eliminate new racially targeted voting restrictions.
Today’s restrictions are rooted in a long, well-known history of voter suppression that has targeted African Americans. Jim Crow laws in the 19th and 20th centuries prevented emancipated people and descendants of enslaved people from voting. More recent attempts to disenfranchise Black voters have included voter identification laws and the mass closures of polling places in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
But another attempt at making it harder for African Americans to vote has flown under the radar: targeting or eliminating Sunday voting, which is what a bill passed by the Georgia House this week aims to do. Such provisions are a continuation not only of centuries of racially targeted voting restrictions but of legislating behavior on Sundays as a method of controlling African Americans.
In antebellum America, enslaved people often experienced slightly more autonomy on Sundays. They prepared food and clothes for themselves for the week ahead and visited family members miles away. Many attended Sunday worship, while a few even bought and sold goods. Even so, patrollers would police the areas surrounding plantations to maintain enslavers’ control over the movement of enslaved people. If enslaved people lacked written permission to visit loved ones on Sundays — or even sometimes if they had such permission — violence might ensue.
At the same time in the early 19th century, powerful religious movements campaigned to end Sunday commerce and especially Sunday mail delivery. These people were “Sundayists,” who sought to enforce Sunday sacred rest on everyone.
The climate of ever-changing alliances pitted enslavers against Sundayists, because enslavers wanted to wield their ability to have enslaved people carry mail and facilitate business for them any day they pleased.
Things changed during the Civil War, however, when the Confederacy ended Sunday mail for both political-economic and moral-nationalist reasons. Even so, enacting such regulations was acceptable in part because enslavers simply ignored them, forcing enslaved people to continue carrying mail on Sundays in violation of the law.
After the Civil War, Sunday mail returned as the United States occupied the former Confederate states during Reconstruction. Many African Americans found work in the post office because it was federally controlled, and African Americans had decades of experience handling mail while enslaved. This experience positioned them to receive political appointments in what was then known as the Post Office Department from Republican allies, especially President Ulysses S. Grant.
Yet Sundayists across the country doubled down on trying to codify a Christian moral nationalism. Sundayists and their allies argued that the Civil War happened because the United States was not adequately Christian. Their efforts included a failed push for a constitutional amendment to declare the United States a Christian nation; local Sunday laws, which closed businesses; and a failed 1888 attempt at national legislation that would mandate Sunday as a day of rest across America.
Beginning in the 1880s, Sundayists found new allies for their campaign to end Sunday mail and reduce Sunday commerce. A burgeoning labor movement liked the idea of providing a day off for postal workers, and an array of shifting alliances included groups like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union with religious motives as well. They campaigned nationally, lobbied and petitioned Congress and found some success — including, finally, the end of Sunday mail in 1912.
This unique coalition was key to victory. But Sundayists were also helped by technological innovation that made the post office more efficient and enabled non-mail communication via the telegraph. The Sundayist movement had also grown thanks to a backlash against increasing religious diversity in an age of immigration.
The end of Sunday mail terminated a community activity that had thrived among religious observers of all races. When mail arrived on Sundays, groups of churchgoers would visit their local post offices to retrieve it after services. They would “lounge” and converse while gathering their mail. The end of this tradition revealed how federal and local Sunday laws harnessed the power to shape people’s political and social behavior — as the Sundayists had hoped. If Sunday mail ended, they reasoned, then Americans would return their attention to sacred rest on the Christian Sabbath.
It is in this context that we should consider efforts to limit Sunday voting. In their own words “Souls to the Polls” is “a small group of churches working together to mobilize voters that would let their voices be heard in a community whose voices mattered.” Though this movement began officially in the 1990s, its spirit traces its roots to using Sundays as a refuge from the week during enslavement. Sunday offered some variety, as well as limited opportunities to exercise autonomy. This was especially true of Sunday worship, as faith and spirituality were central to sustaining life and building culture amid inhumane conditions.
“Souls to the Polls” is a similar move to take advantage of freedoms that did not always exist. A community that has consistently confronted voting restrictions has used a coordinated voting push to exert political agency on a day steeped in a history of community and exertion of freedom. The idea is to motivate “those working 12-hour shifts, juggling child care, or lacking transportation,” especially “low-income and minority voters” to vote, according to scholar Nicole Hemmer. Just like communities used to retrieve mail after church, Souls to the Polls aims to get people to go from church to the ballot box. The movement is also union-supported like the Black labor movements including postal workers a century earlier.
Bills aiming to eliminate Sunday voting have a transparent purpose: countering these efforts because African Americans vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Such targeting of African American voters is precisely the kind of thing that the 15th Amendment aimed to prevent, and which Congress has the power to thwart. Doing so would allow communities that have forged significance in Sunday behavior to continue blazing their own way.