The democratic process relies on eligible voters regularly showing up to vote. Yet, voting patterns are erratic. Why is this? Why is voting a religious issue? At this service, Rev. Sue will explore how the UU principle “to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large” puts voting front and center as a moral matter.
Text of Sermon, Rev. Sue Browning, June 17, 2018
Why preach about voting? Isn’t everyone here already registered and a regular voter? Maybe, even likely.
Once in a while you run into the perfect voter who has voted at every opportunity. In every primary, general and special election. It’s not easy. To vote, one needs to be: (i) eligible to register, (ii) registered in time to vote, (iii) to show-up at polls and meet the criteria to vote (ID, etc.), and (iv) then vote. Our ideal of the perfect voter is one who is informed.
A personal confession. There was an election in 1984 when I wanted to vote. I expected to vote, but blew it. I had moved from one Boston suburb to another that year. Running late for work that election morning, I decided to vote on my way home. It was a rainy night, traffic was bad, and yet I made it to the poll on time. But I wasn’t on the list. My license showed I lived in the precinct, but I wasn’t registered, at least not in my new town.
While that morning voting hadn’t been my top priority, being told I couldn’t vote felt huge. Adults voted. Responsible, accountable citizens voted. I was 28. I needed to vote.
I jumped back in my car, and trekked the messy 15 miles back to my old town, arriving 10 minutes after the polls closed. Since then I have a decent record of voting in elections – local, state, federal elections. Now, I try to vote in the morning.
Responsible, accountable adults vote. That is the norm I was raised with. Freedom was everything. Voting stood between “us” and Communism. Voting was a right of living in freedom. More, everyone else’s freedom was at risk if I didn’t vote.
In my baby-boomer mind, voting is still the voice I have. It matters to use the voice. Yet trends indicate fewer register to vote, and of those who register turnout is low. Roughly 50% of those eligible to vote do so Presidential elections, and notably less in midterm and local elections.
Our question this morning: Is there a moral obligation to vote?
While some countries have mandatory voting, among our freedoms as Americans is our choice to vote or not. What compels us to vote?
Yesterday as a part of the Fredrick Douglass 200 Year Celebration there was a community reading of ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ in front of the courthouse. This direct and powerful speech by Douglass (July 2,1852) reminds us slaves did not have the rights of citizenry, no less voting, and at the time of the speech emancipation was years away. Voter laws –amendments to the Constitution, and addressing Jim Crow through the 1965 Voters Rights Act, and further adjustments in the 1993 Motor Voter Act were nowhere in sight. After the community reading, there was a panel at the library leading a reflection on Douglass’s speech. In her remarks, Professor Clara Small (retired, Salisbury University) included an impassioned plea for all to vote at every opportunity. The path to that right was brutal for many and to not vote denied the pain of this history.
Why do fewer and fewer vote? Some see voting is a good and right thing to do, yet showing up falls off their radar and doesn’t happen. We make time for what is a priority. Others proactively choose not to vote. Of these, many sense their vote doesn’t matter. It’s not so much they think an election will come down to a one vote difference (there are a few cases, but these are rare), but rather they see all candidates/politicians are the same. Why continue to keep the wheels turning on a fundamentally broken car? Others find the choices available don’t represent their values and beliefs. Voting feels disingenuous. In my asking around about voting I heard, “I wish there were more than two parties, with third party candidates actually having a chance. When I do vote, I often vote 3rd party and if I choose to share with others that I did so, I am chastised.” Others determine they I don’t know enough and choose to let those who know the issues and candidates vote and decide. They acknowledge giving up voice and are ready to live with the outcome.
It’s tempting to jump to judgment: All have an obligation to vote. Those opting out are wrong, or irresponsible, or naïve. Rather than judge those who opt out, are we listening to their ‘why’ of opting out? What needs to change for more to vote?
A few years ago, I preached on struggles in our democracy. Our 5th UU principle asks congregations to affirm and promote the use of the democratic process within our congregations and society at large. In that sermon, I quoted Rev. A. Powell Davies, a renowned Unitarian minister in the DC area in the 1940s and 1950s. (The Unitarian Faith, April 4, 1954):
“[Unitarianism] is an inclusive, not an exclusive faith, based on individual freedom of belief…finding salvation not through someone else’s martyrdom, but by education and the disciplines of democracy. A …commitment of the Unitarian faith is to democracy – not merely as a political system but as the just and brotherly way in human relations. … We think that discussion – is the path to true agreement. We are educators one of another, and all can learn from each. We are well aware that democracy can be a discipline – and sometimes a harsh one. But this is part of its value. We grow by learning to get along with other people. We grow even more when we learn to respect and like each other, to have a concern, each for all, in the words of the New Testament, to ‘love one another.’”
(July 2016 SERMON: The Heart of Democracy,
Democracy sets a high bar. Voting – giving voice – is part of the process. Democracy requires identifying issues, civil discourse, and living with the outcome of the majority choices. In the US democracy is grounded in electing representatives to ‘run’ government. These are the big ideas which have been around a while, yet, something in Rev. Davies sermon that in 2018 feels out of touch.
Rhetoric is as old as democracy. While the old smoke-filled rooms where parties selected candidates have changed, hype and positioning is not all new. True, the 24/7 access to information and social media have shifted something, yet the disconnect seems to be more. What feels different is the opting out; the sense of disenfranchisement of more and more act upon by not voting. It matters that we listen to why. Our freedom is linked to participation.
Voting is a way voice to our personal needs. More, voting is about the collective. Voting is done for the other. When we give voice to what we see is best for society, voting acknowledges we have a mutual destiny with those also living under the same laws and leaders.
Where does moral obligation fit in? I have a moral obligation to help a child who has fallen off their bike in the street. I have a moral obligation to not throw trash in the Chesapeake Bay. I have a moral obligation to meet commitments I’ve made to another. And I hope my fellow humans also see each of these as moral obligations. I depend on them to do so.
Do I depend on everyone who can vote to do so? Is voting a moral obligation? It’s a harder question for me. If someone feels uninformed, or can’t in good conscious pick among the choices, is that too a statement? I do believe the more who do vote the better off we are which circles back to a value in having as many as possible registered, and information ready, and broad access to voting – early voting, absentee voting, rides to polls.
Philip Dutton from the Chestertown UU congregation has engaged deeply with the registration and turn out plans. He’s been trained to register others, and successfully applied for a Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) grant for $500 to help a non-partisan group (Your Vote, Your Voice MD) rent vans on election day. This morning we have a guest on site to register voters, and to answer questions on voting.
Voting is tied to engagement. Voting pulls in curiosity. It’s a habit. Shifting back to more voting regularly will take time, but feels possible.
Beyond voting, of late living in democracy feels tense. We’re on continual high alert with suspicion of process and leadership. In fear, and in frustration, voices aren’t being heard. In this climate, how do we use the basic tools of democracy to engage? To hear one another? To make changes? Voting is part, as is vigorous campaigning, attending hearings, circulating petitions.
When is the risk to self or others so great that the most effective and impactful actions need to take the form of active resistance and disruption? On Capitol Hill, in Annapolis, or locally. When and where does civil disobedience fit in? What type of disruption has true impact? Is it useful to disrupt the personal lives of elected representatives and their senior staff to address deepest concerns?
Hard questions. Yet, these are questions which arise in response to the underlying angst and tension in our democracy. Our Unitarian Universalists values offer guidance as we make our choices.
First, as UUs we value difference. We value processes that make living and learning across difference – even radical difference – possible. We need skills of tolerance as a base, and beyond tolerance we strive to learn from difference – to build our skills to listen; to build our skills to honor there is more than one approach to big problems, to build our skills of checking out own assumptions. We trust common ground arises when we use these skills well, even common ground that is unexpected. Yes, today this dialog feels rare. And yet, to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all, we can’t shy away from difference.
Second, as UUs we value justice. Translate it for today as valuing fairness. Justice is about looking across the wide spectrum, especially to the margins. Who is included? Whose voices are there, yet drowned out? How are limited resources used? Where are lines crossed on morality and where are civil liberties jeopardized?
How do we voice what is right and moral in ways that will be effective and impactful, and not just noise?
Disruption and resistance are part of our democracy tool kit, but not the first tools I suggest we reach for. In deciding where disruptions helps I suggest we ask, are policies in the country within reason? Not are the policies the exact policies I prefer or recommend, but are the policies in some reasonable bound? Are funds being collected and used in an understandable way? Where are my deepest concerns? Who are they with? Are the challenges of being heard the same for national, state and local issues? For all leaders? And then match the response. Not all challenges are equal.
When we are ok disrupting personal lives of leaders? What is the standard we want to set. If we filter our perspectives through the questions above, and determine issues are hugely significant, and solutions are not forthcoming, and the leader is not listening and is crossing moral lines, attention-getting actions have a place. Yet, for me, I see the need for personal life disruption as rare. Very rare. For our tools to work – from voting, to protest, to civil disobedience, we need to ask what is effective and impactful in achieving real change.
Not answers I have this morning. Others may have views for discussion during coffee hour.
I circle back to voting. It’s the most basic tool – the tool that we know can have effective impact when used regularly over the long haul. Voting as a habit. Staying informed as a habit. Encouraging others to use their voice has value – not to judge, but to encourage. Maybe you are the perfect voter. Who in your area of influence might you encourage to vote? How do you hear their concerns with voting? Where are you called to support others in exercising their right to vote? To help with the process? To challenge roadblocks to voting?
I believe that our democracy will be better, and our government better, when fewer have opted out and when fewer feel disenfranchised. I want all the voices. I trust that the common sense of the broadest set of citizens possible is the best guidance for society.
Democracy works best when the tool kit is used well.
Voting is a tool worthy of our trust. Worthy of our time.
May It Be So