The first day or two of a hunger strike isn’t that bad, relatively. It’s the third day when the trouble starts to set in — that’s when the body begins adjusting to running on its biological reserves. A rumbling stomach turns into nausea, into dizziness, into mental fogginess. After that, it’s all about managing fatigue.
Leo Cevallos, a senior at Arizona State University, recently came off of his hunger strike alongside nearly two dozen folks who are calling for Washington, D.C., lawmakers to pass major federal voting reforms — and though his strike was ended due to medical advisement, his colleagues are prepared to continue striking until reforms are passed.
So far, they’re on their 11th day.
“We are young adults, but we are adults; we understand that putting our bodies on the line is worth it,” Cevallos said to Spectrum News. “We don’t know when this strike will end — it ends when it passes — but we are committed to seeing it through to the end."
Cevallos is a member of Un-PAC, a national committee with chapters at colleges and high schools across the country, with the mission of getting big money out of politics and establishing widespread voting reform. Their goal is the passage of the Freedom to Vote Act, a reform package sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and backed by key moderate Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
“This is one of those issues that all Americans can agree on: on a democracy that works for all constituents, that money shouldn’t buy elections, and that it shouldn’t be hard for working people to vote,” Shana Gallagher, Un-PAC’s executive director, told Spectrum News.
“We hope that our sacrifice can help shed light on the moral urgency of passing this legislation — and that, very unfortunately, this has become a partisan issue in the U.S. Senate," Gallagher added.
The strike began at the Arizona State Capitol on Dec. 6, as the Arizona Hunger Strike for Democracy; within five days, it moved 2,300 miles to the east, landing at Lafayette Square, outside the White House in Washington D.C., attracting attention and solidarity — and additional strikers — from across the country. Activists are prepared to continue their hunger strike indefinitely, Gallagher said, in an effort to urge lawmakers to pass major voting reforms under the Freedom to Vote Act.
The Freedom to Vote Act is the shorthand name for a legislative package that would reform voting, campaign finance and redistricting nationwide. It includes provisions for automatic voter registration for eligible voters; would establish Election Day as a public holiday; ensure at least 15 days of early voting; overhaul Congressional redistricting; strengthen voting system security; create a national standard for states requiring voter identification; and mandate donor disclosure.
It was written as a narrower successor to the For the People Act voting reform bill, which passed the House twice, but couldn’t find purchase in the Senate. More conservative Democrats, especially Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, found several of its provisions untenable.
The Freedom to Vote bill last went before the Senate in October, where where it failed to advance owing to a 49-51 vote, essentially along party lines — Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., voted “no” to ensure that he would be able to bring the bill back.
However, that the bill was already a compromise to win the more conservative members of the Democratic caucus and still couldn’t get enough Republicans to break the filibuster meant it was essentially doomed from birth.
Republican Senators have broadly criticized efforts to voting reform on a national scale, arguing that such bills are tantamount to a federal takeover of states’ rights.
“Democrats call this latest repackaging a ’compromise,’ but it’s only a compromise among themselves,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in an October statement. “Democrats’ claims turn on a dime every couple of years, but somehow their desired response never changes: Giving Washington Democrats vast and unprecedented partisan power to micromanage elections across America.”
Un-PAC makes no bones about its leftward origins — Gallagher herself has a history of working for Democratic candidates after graduating from college, including as Bernie Sanders’s national student organizing director — but states on its website that it is “fiercely non-partisan, and committed to working with every single young person who agrees that corruption is bad and democracy is good.” The organization’s focus is on attracting young people interested in policy change.
“I feel very strongly that young people don’t have a lot of political power, but we should, because we’re a giant population block and a potentially giant voting block,” Gallagher said. “But the reality is when it cost tens of millions to win an election and young people are broke college kids, our opinion is not sought by candidates or officials.”
The organization has found some success thus far, scoring positive meetings with Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, both Democrats of Arizona, as well as social media endorsements from celebrities such as actress Kerry Washington. However, the group has thus far been unsuccessful in winning conservative senators to their side. That, Gallagher said, partially why the strike moved from Arizona’s copper-domed state capitol to the park facing the White House — they’re hoping to attract the attention of President Joe Biden.
“President Biden has been prioritizing his agenda and ‘Build Back Better’ ahead of legislation that has the potential to save our democracy, and has overwhelming support from Americans across the country,” Gallagher said, noting that the president has not yet agreed to a meeting despite their requests. “We’re calling on him to use his platform and his enormous power as the leader of the party and the country to make sure that this legislation is prioritized and passed before the end of the year.”
The hunger strike, Cevallos said, was a last resort after statewide door-knocking and phone-banking campaigns didn’t have the desired effect. But this is the second time in three months that young activists have used hunger strikes as a tactic: In November, climate activists associated with the Sunrise Movement ended a 14-day hunger strike intended to pressure Biden to make significant climate policy changes. They stopped when Biden promised a 50 percent decrease in carbon emissions by 2030 at the COP26 summit.
On Wednesday, while touring the aftermath of deadly tornadoes in Kentucky, Biden told reporters when asked that “If we can get the congressional voting rights done, we should do it,” adding that “There's nothing domestically more important than voting rights.”
This article has been updated with a corrected version of Gallagher's comments.